Natasha Cowan is a PhD candidate at the School of International Studies, Flinders University, researching political change in Singapore involving the internet.
On 15 September, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak formally announced that his Government would repeal the Internal Security Act in Malaysia. Enacted in 1960, the Internal Security Act was a shared feature between Malaysia and neighbouring Singapore. The repeal will make room for newer counter-terrorist legislation '(to) ensure a greater civil liberty and maintain racial harmony.'
The reaction across the Strait of Johor in Singapore has been interesting. The Straits Times in particular has flagged the repeal not as a story of Malaysian liberalisation but of political desperation by Najib to save his prime ministership and the Government (subscription required for both those links). The intent is to establish the necessity of retaining the Internal Security Act in Singapore.
Within 48 hours of the repeal announcement, however, socio-political bloggers driven by The Online Citizen uncovered the fact that in 1991 Lee Hsien Loong (now Singapore's PM) stated that the government would 'seriously consider' abolishing the ISA if Malaysia did so.
This revelation sparked a flurry of reposting online of assertions about the ISA and its place in Singapore from NGOs and political parties, with the issue spilling over to the mainstream media, albeit in the form of just four Straits Times Forum letters (three for abolition, one against).
Online commentators reminded the Government of Lee Kuan Yew's assertions that Singapore is more developed than Malaysia, has achieved greater ethnic 'harmony' and so has less need for the ISA. The clamour extended from the blogosphere to statements by presidential candidates and a Facebook group calling for the abolition of the Act.
What is interesting about this series of events so far has been the split in opinions between commentators and the reaction of the Government.
ISA is a useful tool for counter-terrorism. Yet for the Singaporean Government, the ISA's greatest benefit is the legacy of political detentions. While the Government claims that it has not taken political prisoners in many years, the scrapping of its most intimidating piece of legislation – which fuels the urban legend of what happens to those who cross the government – would undermine a key part of its societal 'harmony' through governmentality.
Unlike Najib, PM Lee is not yet desperate enough to have to fiddle with Singapore's instruments of intimidation to secure his own popularity.
Photo by Flickr user DrJohn2005.