Operation Lalang revisited: A call for the repeal of ISA

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operasi lalangBecause of its deployment of the ISA as a political tool, Malaysia will always remain a “quasi” or semi-democracy, says Johan Saravanamuttu.

The continued detentions of the five Hindraf lawyers under the ISA and blogger Raja Petra Kamaluddin in 2008 under the Abdullah Badawi government is one of the most cynical acts of this so-called ‘moderate’ and retiring leader of Malaysia. The detentions and then the releases of journalist Tan Hoon Cheng and DAP politician Teresa Kok also count as among the dastardly acts of a politically bankrupt government. The Home Minister’s facile excuse that the ISA was used to ‘protect’ Lee and Kok must rank as the political joke of the year.

As of today, Malaysia still has 62 persons detained under the ISA. In a written answer given to Parliament in 2005, Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who was then also Minister for Internal Security, said that in all, 10,662 people had been arrested under the ISA in the past 44 years, 4,139 were issued with formal detention orders, and 2,066 were served with restriction orders governing their activities and where they live. In addition, 12 people were executed for offences under the ISA between 1984 and 1993.

The more serious political event involving the direct use and abuse of the ISA occurred in 1987. Just the year before, there was yet another patent abuse of human rights in the form of the Memali incident. The 27 October political crackdown on opposition leaders and social activists known by its police code name, “Operation Lalang” (weeding operation), saw the infamous arrests of 106 persons under the ISA and the revoking of the publishing licences of two dailies, The Star and the Sin Chew Jit Poh and two weeklies, The Sunday Star and Watan. As this event is possibly the most significant in Malaysian political history since the May 13, 1969 ethnic riots, it bears some recounting.

Among the more prominent detainees were the opposition leader and DAP Secretary-General Lim Kit Siang, Aliran President Chandra Muzaffar, DAP Deputy Chairman Karpal Singh, MCA Vice President and Perak Chief Chan Kit Chee, Dong Jiao Zhong (Chinese Education Associations) Chairman Lim Fong Seng, Publicity Chief of the Civil Rights Committee, Kua Kia Soong, Pas Youth Chief Halim Arshat, Umno MP for Pasir Mas Ibrahim Ali and Umno Youth Education Chairman Mohamed Fahmi Ibrahim.

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Although most of the detainees were released either conditionally or unconditionally, 40 were issued detention orders of two years. Included were Lim Kit Siang and Karpal Singh plus five other party colleagues, a number of Pas members and many social activists. A categorisation of the initially named detainees, numbering 97, gives the following breakdown: political parties – 37; social movements – 23; and individuals – 37.

Racial overtones

The political developments which brought this second largest ISA swoop in Malaysian history (exceeded only by the number detained during the May 13 riots) were sparked ostensibly by mounting political tensions having strong racial overtones. According to the White Paper explaining the arrests, various groups who had played up “sensitive issues” and thus created “racial tension” in the country had exploited the government’s liberal and tolerant attitude. This racial tension made the arrests necessary and further, forced the government to act “swiftly and firmly” to contain the situation (as cited in Amnesty International Report of 1988).

The sensitive issues were brought on by what appeared innocuously enough as Education Ministry appointments of some 100 senior assistants and principals to vernacular Chinese schools. This provoked a storm of protest when it was learnt that those appointed were not Chinese (Mandarin)-educated. Politicians from the MCA, the DAP and Gerakan, the major Chinese-based parties joined the protests and on 11 October 1987, the Dong Jiao Zhong (Chinese educationists) held a 2,000-strong gathering at the Hanainese Association Building, beside the Thian Hou Temple in Kuala Lumpur, which evoked racially provocative speeches from the Chinese politicians present. The meeting resolved to call a three-day boycott in Chinese schools if the government did not settle the appointments issue.

Quid pro quo?

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In the event, even though the boycott was called off, albeit at the eleventh hour, the stage was set for a mirror response from the Malays, led by Umno Youth. A mass rally of 10,000 was held at the TPCA Stadium in Kuala Lumpur and, by then, Umno politicians had begun to condemn MCA leaders for their collusion with the Dong Jiao Zhong and the opposition DAP. Amidst calls from both sides for the resignations of MCA Deputy President and Labour Minister Lee Kim Sai and Umno Education Minister Anwar Ibrahim, Umno announced the holding of a mammoth rally in KL to celebrate its 41st anniversary, which it was claimed would see the attendance of half a million members.

The proposed Umno rally was the ostensible reason for the Inspector General of Police to precipitate the 27 October crackdown. Had the rally been held it was not improbable that racial riots could have been sparked by the incendiary speeches of Umno politicians. To make matters worse, a tinderbox situation was already created by the rampage of a Malay soldier (AWOL) who killed a Malay and two Chinese with an M16 rifle in the Chow Kit area — also the scene of the May 13 bloodbath — straddling two large Chinese and Malay communities.

The pundits have it that the Prime Minster had to have a quid pro quo for cancelling the Umno rally. Hence the arrests of prominent Chinese politicians. In retrospect, some of the culprits like Lee Kim Sai escaped arrest while many opposition members and activists with nothing to do with racial incitement were put in. Most of the government party people also saw early release while the dissidents generally served detention terms of up to two years.

In any case, the incident provided Mahathir’s government with the excuse to further tighten the executive’s stranglehold on politics by further restricting fundamental liberties. In the following year, the Printing Presses and Publications Act was given more bite by a requirement that printers and publishers had now to apply for new licences annually whereas they were only required to renew them yearly before. In addition if any licence was revoked, it could not be challenged in court. A prison term was added that publication of false news could land a publisher in jail for up to three years. Amendments were also made to the Police Act making it practically impossible to hold any political meeting, including a party’s annual general meeting, without a police permit. An illegal meeting could earn the person concerned a fine of RM10, 000 and a jail term of one year. (New Straits Times, 5 December 1987, Aliran Monthly, 1988, Vol. 8:3).

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It is clear from the political developments of 2008 that the present government of Malaysia has no intention of abandoning the use of the ISA despite the many calls by civil society, the Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) and a component BN party (Gerakan) for its repeal. Because of its deployment of the ISA as a political tool, Malaysia, which has held 12 general elections to date, will always remain a “quasi” or semi-democracy. Citizens must continue to demand the release of all ISA detainees and insist that Members of Parliament whom they voted into office in 8 March 2008 press the government for a debate on the ISA and for its repeal.

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