I have been having discussions about an article written by a scholar on the position of the Malays in Singapore, which also peripherally touches on the Iraqi war. That made me think of 2003, when I wrote three commentaries in the Straits Times (I was reporter on the Political Desk then) on the marginalisation of the Malays, the Singapore’s stance on the Iraqi war, the internal security detentions without trial of the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) suspects, and the national interest of Singapore.


Here they are:


Suspected terrorists deserve an open trial.


The Straits Times, 27 January 2002


By Tan Tarn How.


WHAT a difference this time round.


In 1987, when the Internal Security Department (ISD) swooped on 22 people for alleged involvement in a Marxist conspiracy, the arrests were met with a fair bit of scepticism among some Singaporeans.


Vigils were held in churches for the detainees, many of whom were Catholics.


Some people questioned the use, if not the very existence, of the Internal Security Act (ISA), and called for a trial in open court.


The ISA became enough of an issue for the People’s Action Party government to ask Singaporeans to decide on it at the 1988 elections.


The arrests became a foreign affairs matter, with the West and the Western press charging that they were a contravention of human rights.


In Manila, protesters demonstrated outside the Singapore Embassy.


Contrast this with the aftermath of last month’s arrest of the 15 suspected terrorists.


When the ISD declared that the members of the clandestine group Jemaah Islamiah had hatched plans to bomb American-linked targets here, there was a collective sigh of relief.


In contrast with the Marxists’ detention, Singaporeans this time round seem nearly universally united behind the Government’s action against the suspected terrorists.


The very fact that they did not act like terrorists or religious fanatics is no bar against most people arriving at the conclusion that they are guilty.


On the other hand, that they are your typical faceless heartlander only helps to leaven the already-accepted story by lending it a certain sinister rogue-next-door twist, rather than to raise doubts about their culpability.


For the moment, 13 of the 15 have been detained for two years under the ISA. The Government has said that it may choose to go for a public trial, though not yet, because investigations are continuing.


But there seems to be scant interest – whether from intellectual to the man-in-street – in such a trial.


One can only conclude from the disinterest that the men have already been tried and convicted – by public opinion.


Outside the country, even erstwhile Western critics of the ISA, most notably the United States, have changed tack. Some have given Singapore a pat on the back for moving against the detainees.


Only a very few people have publicly questioned the detentions. One is the Think Centre political activist organisation, which asked for an open trial.


The other is the even more fringe Muslim group Fateha (named after the first of the 114 chapters of the Koran, al-Fateha, or The Opening). It is now under heavy fire from the Government and Muslim leaders here for its view that the actions of the 15 men were prompted by Singapore’s close alignment with the US and Israel.


One reason that minds were so quickly made up against the group is that the evidence against them appears stronger and their alleged intentions clearer.


They have evidently trained in the terrorists camps of Afghanistan.


There is also that video of the Yishun MRT found so far away from home.


Never mind that there are gaps. What, for example, the group had in mind at Yishun MRT remains unknown. And the plot to attack US naval vessels off the coast – does it not appear rather far-fetched?


Another reason is the Sept 11 effect.


Here and in most of the rest of the world, including some countries where Muslims are in the majority, it is not considered in good taste to question official action against anyone who is remotely linked to Osama bin Ladin’s Al-Qaeda network.


Even in the US, the much-vaunted Home of the Free, liberal voices against the encroachment of civil liberties have found few sympathetic listeners.


But those who, in the thick of the Marxist controversy a decade and a half ago believe that the ISA and detention without trial should be scrapped, should also now call for the suspected terrorists to be tried openly.


Many of them probably believe that the detainees are the people the ISD has said they are, and that they really intended to carry out what the ISD has said they plotted to do. This would seem to make a public trial unnecessary.


This is a mistaken view.


Whether their guilt is as plain as daylight, they deserve an open trial as much as those who were held for their alleged roles in the alleged Marxist conspiracy.


Opponents of the ISA argue that it violates fundamental rights because it denies a person the right to defend himself in a fair and open trial.


They also criticise the law for going against the principles of justice


– because a person detained under it is not presumed innocent until proven guilty. They also reject the stand that the ISA is necessary in cases where no witnesses would be forthcoming or that it will undermine its intelligence operations, and insist that the fundamental rights and principles of justice are of greater importance.


If these arguments stand, they should stand in all cases, whether in seemingly open and shut ones like the present or the less clear-cut ones like the Marxist conspiracy.


The average Singaporean, who is not likely to lose sleep over the problems of the ISA, will not be tossing and turning over the justice meted out to the 13 people who have been detained.


Thus, pressing to bring them to court may not be popular. But it will certainly be right.






Minority vs national views


By Tan Tarn How.


15 September 2002


SOME unfortunate statements have been made recently about Singapore’s position in the event of a United States attack of Iraq. They put into spotlight once again an issue that refuses to go away – the loyalty of our Malays/Muslims towards the nation.


The trigger this time round was the call by four volunteer and academic Muslim groups on the Singapore Government not to support any American attack on Iraq.


In a joint statement issued two weeks ago, they appealed to the Government to oppose, or at least abstain from supporting, any such attacks on the Muslim-majority country led by President Saddam Hussein.


The quartet – the Singapore Islamic Scholars and Religious Teachers’


Association (Pergas); the welfare group Perdaus; the welfare and religious teaching group Muhammadiyah Association; and the Centre for Contemporary Islamic Studies – also urged the Government and Singaporeans at large to support the call to end economic sanctions that have caused a humanitarian crisis in Iraq.


What they said made eminent sense to me. They are also not alone, for theirs is the view of many in the West, particularly Europe, who remain unconvinced by US President George W. Bush’s case for an attack, even after his speech at the United Nations.


They also echo the sentiment of many Asians. A recent Straits Times AsiaPoll of senior officials, diplomats, think-tank staff and businessmen – published on Sept 1 – found that less than a third saw Mr Saddam as a current threat to global stability.


What’s unfortunate, and even disturbing, is the response of some Singaporeans to this statement by the Singapore Muslim groups.


Reader Jeff Chen Kwang Wai wrote to the Forum page of The Straits Times to express disappointment at their views, saying: ‘I feel that, as Singaporeans, we should all rally around the national interest of Singapore, whatever the position it adopts regarding this issue.’


He went on to conclude that ‘perhaps, it goes to show that the nation-building process has not really been successful and that the Muslim community has not been fully integrated into Singapore society’.


Mr Chen’s words carry this subtext: that all Muslims are different from all the rest of the people like him, the undefined ‘Singapore society’.


Furthermore, the unspoken line of reasoning is: you are the minority and if you think differently from the majority, then it is a bad thing. And because you are not thinking of the so-called ‘common’ interest, you can’t expect your minority view to prevail. So, really, you have no right to call for it to become national policy.


Mr Chen appeals to that elusive concept called the ‘national interest’.


To be sure, such a thing exists, and if we knew where our national interest lies and know it is not contrary to larger humanitarian and global concerns, we would no doubt be squarely behind it.


But like other terms such as ‘the common good’, it has also been a cattle-prod in whose name much evil has been done – from the suffering and death caused by the Cultural Revolution to the apartheid regime in South Africa and to the rise of fascism.


Also worrying is the stand of reader Elaine Ong Mei Lin, who declared in her Forum letter: ‘I believe the Singapore Government will look into all facets of the issue before it decides whether it should, or should not, support any US action and it will do so with all religious, political and economic sensitivities in mind.’


There is a phrase for this kind of Government-knows-best philosophy when it comes from a citizen: blind faith. No doubt the Government will be happy to oblige and do her thinking on her behalf.


But I hazard to guess that there will be at least some among us who believe that, even if the Government takes into account all the religious, political and economic concerns in coming to a decision, it could take a wrong stand.


In fact, this group probably wants not only to hear the Government’s stand but also to engage it in a debate about whether the stand is justified, instead of merely accepting the national interest as a fait accompli.


Meanwhile, that debate is not happening. As Defence Minister Tony Tan said last week, the Government will make known its position on a US attack when it happens. No one is under the illusion that – far away as the war will be geographically – it will be a difficult decision that bears directly on Singapore.


The Government’s dilemma is clearly how to negotiate between the crouching tiger of ground sentiment – which, it must be said, includes the feelings of non-Muslims – and the hidden dragon of Singapore-US relations (there are good reasons why American warships dock here regularly). Then there is the matter of ‘regional sensitivities’ to factor in.


It is therefore understandable that the Government would want to keep its cards close to its chest when war is still not quite a sure thing yet.


And those like Ms Elaine Ong would perhaps even say that ordinary Singaporeans – such as those from the four groups – have no business meddling in the affairs of the state.


But the organisations have actually done Singaporeans a service rather than a disservice by bringing the vexed issue of Iraq to the attention of their fellow citizens. And it is only natural that they were the ones to do so: they probably followed the subject more than the rest of us.


Instead of questioning whether they are ‘true Singaporeans’, it may be more fruitful to focus on the issues they raised. Whether it is Mr Saddam’s fault, and whether we can do anything about it, surely merits more rather than less discussion.






No sign of Iraqi weapons – How now, Singapore?


By Tan Tarn How


7 June 2003


THE glaring failure so far of the Americans to find any weapons of mass destruction in Iraq is not just an embarrassment for the Bush and Blair administrations.


The Singapore Government, too, may be put in a spot by the anti-war crowd here to explain whether it thinks the invasion is still justified if the alleged biological and chemical arsenals do not cooperate by turning up.


This is because it gave its support for the war on the assumption that the purported weapons existed.


That was why the Government argued that even though it preferred a second United Nations resolution before US troops rolled into Iraq, one was not needed according to international law.


Its support for the US-led invasion was based on the belief that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and that these weapons posed an imminent threat to the world.


Unfortunately, no one, including the anti-war Singaporeans, thought of asking whether it had asked to see some of the evidence the United States claimed it had, especially since UN inspectors had failed to find any of the weapons, right up to the eve of the invasion.


Now it is the turn of the US occupiers to come out empty-handed.


In the last six weeks, about 100 of the 600 or so sites identified by US intelligence and Iraqi officials as places where the country’s biological weapons may be stashed have been searched.


To date, only two mobile laboratories that may have been used to develop anthrax or botulism have been unearthed by US soldiers.


There were no traces of biological agents in them or evidence that they had been used for making weapons. Hardly conclusive proof of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s evil designs.


US President George W. Bush asserted again this week that the ‘tools of mass murder’ would be uncovered, but increasingly, the belief grows that the soldiers may end up finding exactly what UN weapons inspectors


found: Nothing.


If so, it can mean two things: The regime destroyed all evidence of the weapons, or it did not have anything substantial to begin with.


If the latter is the case, then what do US claims that it had intelligence about weapons of mass destruction Iraq mean?


It could have been bad intelligence. Or it could be that Mr Bush and company have pulled the wool over everyone’s eyes.


Anyone who talks about an ‘intelligence failure’ is missing the point.


The problem lay not with intelligence professionals, but with the Bush and Blair administrations. They wanted a war, so they demanded reports supporting their case while dismissing contrary evidence.


The previous paragraph is not mine, but that of American commentator Paul Krugman, whose columns are carried regularly in this paper.


He added: ‘Suggestions that the public was manipulated into supporting an Iraq war gain credibility from that fact that misrepresentation and deception are standard operating procedure for this administration, which – to an extent never before seen in US history – systematically and brazenly distorts the facts.’


Why lie?


Because the Bush team never dared to spell out the real reason for the war, and (wrongly) felt that it could never win public or world support for the right reasons and the moral reasons, it opted for the ‘stated


reason’: The notion that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction that posed an immediate threat to America.


The foregoing paragraph is also not mine, but written by war-supporter Thomas Friedman, whose articles are also published regularly in The Straits Times.


For him, there was a moral reason for the war: Saddam’s murderous regime had to be removed.


But he also saw another reason: That ‘after 9/11, America needed to hit someone in the Arab-Muslim world’.


Now, US credibility has sunk so low that chief UN weapons inspector Hans Blix wants whatever US teams find in Iraq to be verified by international experts.


If it is true that Mr Bush has duped the rest of us, then the Singapore Government must be counted among the misled.


There are several questions arising from this:


If no weapons are found, does the Singapore Government still support the war even if the original reason given for doing so turns out to be fiction?


Can the Government now argue that, never mind that Saddam did not have all those weapons, the important thing is that the Iraqi people have been liberated and are apparently happier now?


Does it matter that this happiness (which may not last) is brought about by the world’s self-appointed policeman against the wishes of most other countries – even if France and other G-8 members now appear to have forgiven Mr Bush his unilateralism. And does it matter that the policeman was less than truthful?


A colleague asked: ‘But what choice do we have but to support the US?


How do you think we got the Free Trade Agreement signed?’


Whether it is accurate that Singapore joined the coalition of the willing to reap such rewards, her remarks ultimately capture the truth for me. America is big and powerful, and we need it more than it needs us.


Thus, my final questions are these: Would the Government have taken any reason the US gave? If not, where would it have drawn the line?