Half-century-long ‘Abolish ISA’ struggle is vindicated

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Najib’s announcement about the imminent repeal of the ISA and emergency era laws caught many by surprise. Anil Netto writes that it vindicates a half-century long ‘people power’ struggle against detention without trial laws.

A great victory for People Power: The ISA will soon be history! - Photo courtesy of reformisjalanan.blogspot.com

Prime Minister Najib Razak’s announcement on 15 September 2011, on the eve of Malaysia Day, that the government would repeal the Internal Security Act (ISA) and lift the proclamations of Emergency has removed a heavy mill-stone that has weighed down on the nation’s psyche.

Despite the long delay before the actual repeal (supposedly in March 2011), the announcement vindicates the long struggle by ordinary Malaysians to rid the nation of this obnoxious detention without trial law.

The dumping of the ISA would be testimony to the strength of People Power for over half a century. A droplet of discontent grew into a stream and then a raging river which flowed into a sea of protest, the biggest of which was the Abolish ISA rally in 2009.

Even when the peninsula achieved Independence in 1957, we were not fully liberated. The Emergency Regulations Ordinance, introduced in 1948 remained in force. Introduced by the British High Commissioner Edward Gent, the Ordinance was anything but gentlemanly. It allowed for detentions not exceeding one year. Not only suspected communists, but thousands of nationalists including Malay political activists outside the Umno fold such as Ahmad Boestamam and Pak Sako were detained without trial.

The struggle to get rid of detention without trial and promote human rights continued with earnest soon after Independence.

Only three months had lapsed since 31 August 1957, when the towering personality D R Seenivasagam rose in the Federal Legislative Council to assert:

It is well known that the implementation of the Emergency Regulations Ordinance is a serious violation of basic human rights. We were told that some people have been labelled as “subversives”, “pro-communists”, “communists sympathisers” and so on …. but if Chin Peng were to surrender unconditionally to the government, will the Emergency end? I dare say it will not. This is because the policy of the Alliance Government is to ensure the permanent existence of the Emergency.’

(Source: Cecil Rajendra, Aliran Monthly, Vol 26 No 2)

Seenivasagam’s fears were not without basis as 56 student activists were detained the following year.

The good news, however, was that the government agreed to repeal the Emergency Regulations Ordinance on 31 July 1960.

The bad news was that a Constitutional Amendment Bill was passed the very next day, giving birth to an even more ominous law, the Internal Security Act, on 1 August 1960. Lawyer Lim Kean Siew, then of the Socialist Front, retorted that this amounted to “in reality, hoodwinking the people; it is only a change in form but not in substance”.

The legendary opposition leader Tan Chee Khoon denounced this sleight-of-hand: “This infernal and heinous instrument has been enacted by the Alliance Government at a time when the emergency was supposed to be over. Then it promptly proceeds to embody all the provisions of the Emergency Regulations which during the Emergency had to be re-enacted every year, but now it is written into the statute book ad infinitum …”

Will the same “reincarnation” happen all over again once the ISA is finally repealed? The muted welcome that greeted the PM’s announcement was soon engulfed by worry and cynicism over what would take the place of the ISA.

It did not help when the government announced that the laws to replace would be modelled after anti-terrorism laws in existence elsewhere that still allow for detention without trial. Not surprisingly, reactions to Najib’s reforms have been mostly flat. There is no sense of euphoria or celebration. Perhaps most people realise that while the ISA may be going soon, preventive detention or detention without trial law will very likely be reincarnated under other laws for “anti-terrorism” and “public order” and “rebranded” with names that are more politically correct. (This raises the question, who decides whether someone is a “terrorist” or disturbing the “public order”? Will these persons be given a fair trial before they are locked away?)

As for publishing permits, the Minister still has the discretion as to whether or not to approve any new applications for permits and to revoke existing permits. As things stand, his decisions cannot be challenged in court.

Something happened along the way

But even if little else changes, the repeal of the ISA, when it is finally done, will remove a great psychological impediment for many people to play a more active role as agents of change.

I once sat in a coffee-shop and listened to a couple of acquaintances talking about current events.

One older guy sounded particularly pessimistic. “I don’t have much hope that things can change,” he lamented. “No matter what you say, no matter what we do, nothing much will change.”

I found that defeatist attitude alarming. If we adopt that line, then we are reduced to little more than helpless, passive observers unable to shape or influence unfolding events. Many politicians like to believe that it is only they – and not the ordinary person on the street – who can determine the direction of the nation or shape the discourse of current events.

Clearly that’s not the case. Consider this: as recently as 15 years ago, how many people would have believed that we could get rid of the ISA? It wouldn’t be wrong to say that a majority of Malaysians actually supported the ISA, which they believed to be essential to prevent our country from disintegrating into chaos. At least, that was the propaganda line fed to them by BN politicians and dutifully disseminated in the mainstream media.

But something happened along the way. As early as 1965, protesters were calling for the “Struggle for Human Rights Day” to mark the second anniversary of Boestamam’s arrest. Of course, the government reacted by detaining several top leaders of the Socialist Front and its component parties and 250 demonstrators including Pak Sako.

Two decades later, Operasi Lalang in 1987 opened the eyes of a new generation of Malaysians to the injustice of the ISA. When opposition politicians, academics, church workers, unionists and activists were roped in under the Mahathir administration, people sat up and took notice. Aliran Monthly spread the message that this was not right. Suaram and Hakam were formed to join in the human rights struggle. And then reformasi was unleashed followed by a heavy crackdown by the state.

During the reformasi era, Gerakan Keadilan Rakyat or Gerak, a coalition of opposition political parties and NGOs, was formed to campaign against unjust laws. By 1999, the government found itself on the defensive and Suhakam, the human rights commission of Malaysia, was created to try and address some of the increasingly vocal public concerns. Gerak’s role was later taken over by the civil society-led Gerakan Mansuhkan ISA (Abolish ISA Movement) in 2001, when 10 reformasi activists were detained.

Then came the September 11 attacks in the United States, delivering a setback to the momentum of the Abolish ISA campaign. Governments across the world tightened their anti-terror laws, and detention without trial received a new lease of life.

But greater awareness of the injustice of detention without trial (recall what happened in Iraq and Afghanistan and torture via rendition) broke people out of their stupour. Facilitated by easier access to critical information on blogs and independent news websites, more people grew aware of the excesses under such repressive laws. The ISA’s days were numbered.

Serious miscalculations

The government seriously miscalculated the growing public sentiment against the ISA when it detained three people in September 2008, including web master Raja Petra and opposition MP Teresa Kok, six months after the watershed 2008 general election. Overnight, thousands across the country participated in prayer services, attended candle-light vigils, wore Abolish ISA badges, signed petitions and stuck campaign stickers on their cars. By now, public sentiment had swung decisively against the ISA and in August 2009, some 50000 people thronged an Abolish ISA rally in KL organised by GMI.

No longer would the public tolerate a mere “review” of the ISA, as the government had pledged in an attempt to placate the public. The continued use of the ISA was no longer tenable. And then on the eve of Malaysia Day, 2011, it finally happened. Najib announced that the ISA, three Emergency Ordinances and the Banishment Act would be repealed while other repressive laws relating to public assembly and publication licences would be eased.

Many took these “reforms” with a pinch of salt. Some even saw them as a pre-election ploy. On the surface, the “reforms” appear positive. But in substance, has there been much change? While the ISA will be repealed, the detainees in Kamunting remain incarcerated. While there is no more need to apply for annual publishing licences, the Home Minister still has the prerogative to decide whether new licences should be approved or existing licences revoked. His decisions cannot be challenged in court. While laws pertaining to the right to assemble would be brought in line with “international norms”, street demonstrations would remain prohibited.

Still, the junking of the ISA shows that nothing is impossible when enough people make their voices heard. When people stand up to be counted, unexpected things can happen. All those Abolish ISA gatherings and rallies, candle-light vigils, badges, T-shirts, stickers, petitions and prayer services have not been in vain.

The ripples from the imminent demise of the ISA have fanned out across Asean. In Singapore, Think Centre has renewed calls for the repeal of the ISA while in Burma, military generals have started freeing political prisoners.

Even the ludicrous charges against the PSM 30 – the court hearing had been scheduled for 10-14 October – have been dropped and the activists given a discharge not amounting to an acquittal. They were due to face charges under the Societies Act (for promoting an “illegal” organisation”) and ISA (for possession of “subversive” material). Once again, the government gravely miscalculated the public sentiment against detention without trial as seen from the public outcry over the unjust arrests of the PSM activists, especially the six detained under the Emergency Ordinance.

Making a difference

So the collective voice of the ordinary people can make a difference. What this should tell us is that we should never under-estimate the capacity of ordinary people, inspired by the higher common good, to effect change.

That said, it is important that a tribunal be set up to look into the unjust – and often heroic – ordeal of so many ISA detainees down the years. Many lives have been ruined. They must not be forgotten. The detainees or their families should be compensated.

Next, it is important that we remain vigilant and reject all other preventive detention laws. In case we need reminding, detention without charge or trial is a violation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:

Article 9 – No one shall be subjected to arbitrary arrest, detention or exile.

Article 10 – Everyone is entitled in full equality to a fair and public hearing by an independent and impartial tribunal, in the determination of his rights and obligations and of any criminal charge against him.

Article 11 (1) – Everyone charged with a penal offence has the right to be presumed innocent until proved guilty according to law in a public trial at which he has had all the guarantees necessary for his defence.

We have to remain vigilant and ensure that reforms go much further, beyond cosmetic or superficial change. We need to push for real change so that we can be free to live our lives to the full. As stewards of the environment, as agents of transformation, we have a responsibility to promote justice and peace in this world – and no law should stand in the way of this noble objective.

Detention without trial is patently unjust. People power has ensured that the ISA will soon be chucked out. Now it is our task to ensure that all other unjust laws, including laws that allow detention without trial, are similarly discarded.

Anil Netto is honorary treasurer of Aliran.

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1 COMMENT

  1. It seems efforts to totally abolish ISA and the repressive laws might not come in just yet. Even when the old emergency laws have been annulled some remnant of it, the 6 month tail still persists recreating past obstacles to attaining a free election or a democratic government. With the new Assembly Law voters enlightenment will further denied.

    For fair suffrage nothing serves better than a UN sanctioned monitoring to be instituted. The ultimate remote risk is it costs at the end of the day to overcome severe problems.

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