Singapore shows folly of security-first society

February 06, 2002|By Stephen Wrage and Sean Fahey

SINGAPORE WAS the first state to find and break up an al-Qaida cell -- another win for the tiny Southeast Asian power that is famous for valuing order above liberty and for putting the interests of the community ahead of the rights of the individual.

Should the United States be following Singapore's lead and sacrificing civil liberties to fight terrorism? In Singapore, they know how to keep tabs on radical elements. It is a tight little island city-state with fewer people than metropolitan Washington. It houses everyone in massive Housing Development Board blocks with a watcher in each building.

Singapore requires everyone to carry an ID card with a photograph and fingerprints. It controls the media so every foreign publication is censored and every domestic publication is produced by Singapore Press Holdings, which is run by the government. It controls all broadcasting and cable, outlaws all satellite dishes and allows Internet access only through government-controlled providers.

Justice is certain and swift. There are no jury trials. The courts look very much like the military tribunals Attorney General John Ashcroft has created. The authorities aren't shy about doling out the death penalty (340 people were hanged in the 1990s) and they cane for petty crime (3,200 people in a recent year).

Under the Internal Security Act, Singapore can lock up anyone without trial for infinitely renewable two-year terms. To quote one Singaporean who recently spoke cautiously to The New York Times: "Don't use my name. You should know how Singapore is run. It is run by the Internal Security Department. Your fingerprints are on your identity card. If you do something, you are caught."

Singapore is a country serious about dealing with crime and seems ideally equipped to fight terrorism. Perhaps it's time we set about copying their methods.

But wait. How exactly did the al-Qaida cell come to light? Was it sharp surveillance combined with clever police work? Were the Singaporean authorities alert, hot on the trail and on top of things? Did their wiretaps pick up signs of scheming? Had they deftly infiltrated the radicals?

In fact, they were presented with videotape found by U.S. troops in the rubble of a house in Afghanistan. The tape, which had been made in Singapore, described in detail the operations of the cell. It included a helpful voiceover in English by one of the conspirators laying out his plan and identifying clearly the sites to be bombed and the techniques to be used.

It did not require much sleuthing.

The Singaporean authorities first confessed to being "stunned" that terrorists had been operating for years in their tiny, thoroughly policed city-state. For several weeks they suppressed news of the origin of the videotape. Finally they put out the word that they uncovered the terrorists entirely on their own. The tape arrived four days after they rounded up the suspects, they now say. It was "very useful corroboration," they declare, "but by then we had it all wrapped up."

It turns out there were actually three cells. The conspirators had been planning attacks since 1997, and the chief plotter had gone to Afghanistan for training as long ago as 1993. All of the 15 arrested had presumably undergone Singapore's compulsory military training and six were still serving in Singapore's military reserves.

Enough, then, of the Singapore model of state-of-the-art surveillance and intrusion. Judging by this bit of police work, it is a bad bargain to trade away one's privacy and one's liberties for Singapore-style "security."

Even if we could recast the United States to be a hyper-controlled state like Singapore, even if we instituted compulsory ID cards with fingerprints and photos, even if we sanitized our society to the point of sterility until littering was a major crime and those who failed to flush public toilets were legally charged and publicly shamed, even if we had the additional advantages of tiny size and a compliant, intimidated population, al-Qaida cells still might operate for years undetected.

Better to live resolutely with the threat of terrorism than to dwell timidly in the delusion that the government will keep us safe if we hand over our rights.

Stephen Wrage and Sean Fahey teach in the political science department at the U.S. Naval Academy.

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