So who has ‘misunderstood’ the ISA?

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It is now being claimed by some that the Internal Security Act has been ‘misunderstood’ by a significant section of the Malaysian public. But Farish Noor argues it is the ruling elite who have ‘misunderstood’ the ISA and what it is meant to do. And for that reason, one understands why Malaysians from all walks of life now want us to move on from the despotism of the past and to discard such laws that have been abused for so long, too many times.


It is now being claimed by some that the Internal Security Act has been ‘misunderstood’ by a significant section of the Malaysian public, and if only they can be made to ‘understand’ it they would come to realise that it is after all a good tool that ought to be kept in the coffers of the state.

That such a claim can be made today is interesting, for at least it makes the concession that there are enough Malaysians out there who reject the manifold uses and abuses of the ISA so as to warrant the call to have it abolished, or at least so radically revised that it cannot be abused further. However, we are left with the question: who, exactly, has ‘misunderstood’ the ISA? The Malaysian public or the politicians who run the country?

Lest we forget, let us remind ourselves what the ISA is all about. The ISA document describes exactly the sort of security threat that it is meant to deal with, and it identifies these threats as military and pseudo-military threats to the nation. It regards as dangerous groups that accumulate and distribute arms, uniforms, banners and flags. In short it is a law that was and is designed to deal with para-military and militia threats to the country that may come from underground terrorist groups or hidden armies that have been set up with the purpose of conducting war against the legitimate state of Malaysia .

Over the decades, however, we have seen countless Malaysian citizens of all walks of life rounded up under the ISA, ostensibly for the sake of public safety and security. Journalists have been detained ‘for their own safety’. Academics, activists, social workers, religious leaders, students and politicians alike have been the victims of this law. It is for this simple reason that the Malaysian public now feels that the interpretation of the ISA law has far exceeded its limit and that it has been abused for politically instrumental ends.

Proof of this comes in the form of the many Malaysian politicians who today stand as members of Parliament or the various state assemblies of the land, who were themselves victims of the ISA in the past. If indeed these politicians were real threats to national security, would they have been elected by the Malaysian electorate? The fact that they were voted to represent the people means that the people at least do no see them as security threats; so who does?

This brings us back to the question of who exactly has ‘misunderstood’ the ISA. There is no evidence whatsoever to suggest that the Malaysian public wishes to see blood and mayhem in our streets. Most Malaysians would agree that if some nutter wishes to fly a plane into the KLCC complex or plant a bomb in Parliament, such a lunatic has to be apprehended immediately in order to save lives.

But what the Malaysian public objects to is when laws such as the ISA are interpreted at whim by politicians who take liberties with its meaning and import and when laws such as the ISA are used as the most convenient tool to silence the legitimate political opposition in the country.

Furthermore, we all know that the ISA remains as an odd colonial relic from the past, which has been discarded or replaced with laws that are more just and humane in many other postcolonial societies. Yet in Malaysia today – a country where moral policing has become normalised and where a woman is about to be whipped for drinking beer – the ISA is but the tip of the iceberg of routine state control and policing that has gone too far.

Malaysians all want a safe and stable country where everyone can live their lives in ease and safety, but perhaps the time has come to reject not merely the laws but rather the abuse of the law that allows for detention without trial for people who have neither armed themselves or formed guerrilla groups to threaten the Malaysian nation-state. Unless and until the powers-that-be understand this simple fact that ought to be evident even to a child, we would argue that it is the ruling elite who have ‘misunderstood’ the ISA and what it is meant to do. And for that reason, one understands why Malaysians from all walks of life now want us to move on from the despotism of the past and to discard such laws that have been abused for so long, too many times.

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