Singapore is coming under mounting pressure to ease political restrictions after Malaysia unveiled steps to abolish tough security laws and ease media and protest regulations.
Human rights and opposition groups say Singapore needs to keep up with the times and abolish the Internal Security Act (ISA), which allows for detention without trial and is seen by critics as an instrument to stifle dissent.
In a surprise move, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak said last week his government would scrap the ISA in Malaysia and ease other laws perceived as curbs on civil liberties, including protest rules and annual newspaper licensing.
However, Singapore insists the ISA, which was used against leftists in the past and suspected Islamic extremists in recent years, remains relevant and maintains that media regulations are needed to preserve social cohesion.
The city-state’s longest-held ISA detainee was Chia Thye Poh, a former Socialist Party MP who was held for 23 years from 1966 to 1989, followed by nine more years of effective house arrest.
Even now, all protests outside a designated free-speech zone — where speakers must register with authorities in advance — still require a police permit in Singapore.
The ISA was originally designed to fight communist insurgents in the 1960s in British-ruled Malaya, which included modern-day Malaysia and Singapore.
Singapore became independent in 1965 after being ejected from the Malaysian federation, but both countries retained the ISA.
Najib said that after repealing the ISA, Malaysia will introduce new legislation retaining some preventive detention powers, but for shorter periods and subject to more court oversight.
“In a way Najib is taking the cue from civil society groups in his country,” said Sinapan Samydorai, director for Southeast Asian affairs at Think Center, a Singapore-based political and civil rights campaign group.
“If Malaysia is opening up, then I think they are moving ahead. It’s also time for Singapore to move ahead,” he said.
Singapore defends the ISA. Last week, authorities disclosed three suspected Islamist militants were being held under it after they were repatriated to the city-state.
Two belonged to the Southeast Asia-based Jemaah Islamiyah terror network and the third is a member of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, an armed group waging an insurgency in the southern Philippines.
In a statement on Friday, the Singaporean Ministry of Home Affairs said the ISA had been used “sparingly” and was aimed at fighting “threats of subversion, racial and religious extremism ... espionage and terrorism,” not political dissent.
“No person has ever been detained only for their political beliefs,” the ministry said, referring to criticism that the ISA was used in the past to detain government opponents and intimidate the population.
Samydorai said the results of parliamentary elections in May and the presidential poll last month, when the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) recorded its worst-ever showings, showed that Singaporeans, especially the young, want greater political freedom.
“Governments in Asia are realizing that young people cannot tolerate non-democratic practices anymore,” he said.
In May, the PAP lost an unprecedented six seats in the 87--member parliament and its share of the popular vote fell to 60 percent, its lowest in 52 years in power.