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In Singapore, The Voices Of Dissent Grow Louder

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After decades of enforced silence, Singaporeans who spent years in jail without charges or trial are shattering a political taboo by speaking out about their detention — and the colonial-era security laws that made it possible.

The affluent trading hub — known for its solid rule of law — still allows the government to detain citizens indefinitely.

But people who say that the laws were used to abuse them and silence their dissenting voices are now talking — which many see as a foreshadowing of bigger political changes for Southeast Asia's wealthiest nation.

Take the friends and supporters of Singapore's second-longest-serving political prisoner, the late Dr. Lim Hock Siew. They gathered recently to honor Lim.

"He shall live in our hearts forever, as a giant of a man, towering over those Lilliputians and bullies who tried to destroy him, but failed," remembered fellow detainee Tan Kok Fang.

Lim and Tan were both arrested in 1963 during Operation Coldstore, a round-up of socialist opposition party members two years before Singapore gained its independence from Great Britain.

Lim was suspected of being a communist, but Singapore's Internal Security Act, or ISA, allows for indefinite detention without trial, so he was detained for 19 years without ever being accused of a crime.

Tan says the ISA is one relic of the British colonial era that must be scrapped.

"With the ISA there, a lot of people would still be afraid to speak up," Tan said. "There is a very strong sort of a white terror atmosphere existing in Singapore, especially with the old man around."

Critics Are Speaking Out

That "old man" is Singapore's founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, on whose orders Lim remained locked up. After more than half a century at the apex of power, Lee resigned from the cabinet last year.

This has emboldened his critics, including lawyer Teo Soh Lung. She was one of 16 people arrested in 1987 during Operation Spectrum, which targeted an alleged Marxist conspiracy. She has recently completed a memoir of her experiences, and says she is prepared to face possible retribution.

"My whole life was an open book," Teo says. "I didn't do anything subversive."

What she was really arrested for, Teo says, is angering then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew by affirming the local bar association's right to comment on politics, and for being one of a group of educated professionals who supported the opposition Workers' Party.

"If all of us had gone into opposition politics, we may not win, but we may create some interest in the opposition, and we make trouble for the [ruling party], so they nipped us in the bud," she says. "That's what they said."

Teo challenged her detention in 1989 and lost. The same court further ruled that Singapore's judiciary has no power to review the executive branch's use of the ISA.

Singapore Management University political scientist Bridget Welsh says that recent challenges to the ISA are part of a historic shift to political pluralism in the city-state, driven by the rise of younger voters and Internet media.

"The more engaged liberal voters and liberal Singaporeans are taking to issues like the Internal Security Act," Welsh says. "They're concerned about the rights of different communities across genders. They're concerned about free speech. And there is a beginning of an expansion of civil society. Singapore is opening up and changing."

Civil Liberties Still On Back Burner

These trends were behind opposition Workers' Party gains in the 2011 general election, and in a local by-election in May.

But the opposition won on bread and butter issues. Vincent Wijeysingha, treasurer of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party, says that to Singapore voters, civil liberties are not one of the main issues.

And opposition politicians are still considered troublemakers, even by some friends, says Wijeysingha.

"'We appreciate what the [Democratic Party] is doing but I was afraid to add you as a friend on Facebook,'" he says friends tell him. "The fact that you are employed by a government department or you have scholarship, or you have a flat, or a government pension makes you susceptible to losing all those things, because of support for the opposition."

Critics admit that Singapore has applied the ISA sparingly, compared to neighboring Malaysia. In recent years, ISA arrests have been of suspected terrorists, not dissidents. Although without a fair trial, critics point out, who is to say who's a terrorist or a dissident?

Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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