Punitive Legacies of the ‘Emergency’: Indefinite Detention without Trial in Singapore from the 1948 to 2000

Ariel  Yap1

1Monash University, Clayton, Australia

The use of torture and indefinite detention without trial has been a longstanding concern internationally. This article seeks to continue discussion of such punitive practices in the Global South by drawing on data generated during fieldwork undertaken for research on Detention without Trial in Singapore. Data consists of 135 oral history interviews conducted with survivors and their families, many of whom shared their experiences for the first time. This research constitutes original analysis of the ‘blind spot’ of punitive practices that have occurred outside traditional criminal justice institutions in South-East Asia and seeks to understand the life course of detention and social harms pervaded following a hundred and forty-six years of British Colonial administration.

The case of ‘preventive detention’ under the Public Preservation of Security Ordinance 1955 and Internal Security Act 1960 in Singapore is used to explore how processes of colonisation, decolonisation, and globalisation have shaped contemporary punishment practices. My analysis not only illustrates how counterinsurgency practices intersect with historical and international political movements but indicates how ‘inheritance’ of British ‘Westminster’ colonial systems has enabled repressive laws to be used in post-colonial contexts, arguably representing a form of ‘mimicry’ and extension that reinvents problematic empire rule.

Crucially, analysis aims to reconceptualise the notion of ‘preventive detention’ beyond widely-cited legal discourse, as a punitive extralegal process that encompasses the areas of policing and punishment by inflicting substantive pain and trauma on victim-survivors and their families. Further instilling a culture of fear that impacts mindset and civic engagement in broader Singapore society today. Uncertainty, injustice, and time serve as overlapping layers during indefinite detention; adding to the pains and trauma experienced by survivors and their families.


Ariel is a teaching and research associate at Monash University, Australia. Her research focuses on policing and punishment. Ariel’s publications include Capital punishment in Singapore, United Nations and the Rule of Law Sustainability: Case Studies on Singapore and the Solomon Islands, and the Pains of Policing across time: British Malaya and Singapore. In the last year, Ariel successfully managed Emerald’s Handbook on Crime, Sustainability and Development Handbook with editors Jarrett Blaustein, Nathan Pino, Rob White, and Kate Fitz-Gibbon. Moving forward, Ariel continues her work as contributor and editor on upcoming publications in the areas of social harm, policing, and punishment.


Aug 30 2021


8:00 am - 6:00 pm