When Parliament killed our democracy

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D R SeenivasagamWhen D R Seenivasagam spoke out against the passing of the Internal Security Act as an instrument of intimidation 50 years ago, few realised how prophetic his words were, writes Tan Pek Leng.

At this time, 50 years ago, the whole country was being geared up to celebrate the end of the horrendous 12-year “Emergency” that had taken an enormous toll on the lives of our people.

The Georgetown City Council, the only one then controlled by the Socialist Front, was the only local council in the country that refused to take part in the celebrations because the end of the “Emergency” was going to mean the start of a permanent emergency under the Internal Security Act (ISA).

Tan Phock Kin, the Socialist Front (SF) whip in the city council put it this way:

“With the advent of Merdeka, everyone looked forward with great hope to the ending of, at long last, the curtailment of liberty. But what do we find? Laws become more arbitrary, regulations become even more restrictive. Is this then an occasion for rejoicing and merriment? I feel sure that all thinking people will agree that such an occasion should be one for mourning and not for celebration.”

On 22 April 1960, when then Deputy Prime Minister Tun Razak tabled the constitutional amendment that would enable the promulgation of the Internal Security Act (ISA) in Parliament, opposition leaders voiced their concern, consternation, and most of all deep fear. The leader of the People’s Progressive Party, D R Seenivasagam, said that the new regulations were “ten times more fearful, ten times more deadly, than the Emergency Regulations”.

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The Emergency Regulations had to be renewed every year whilst the ISA is a permanent law, “if it is not revoked it will live forever”. Under the Emergency Regulations, a detainee has the right to protest against his detention to the Committee of Review, presided over by a High Court Judge, which has final arbitration on the case.

Under the ISA, however, the decision of the Advisory Board can be overruled by the  Home Affairs Minister. Article 149 of the Constitution provided that preventive detention should not be effected, and if at all effected, can only last three months. The constitutional amendment did away with this protection in order to facilitate the enactment of the ISA.

Rising to debate the Internal Security Bill on 22 June 1960, D R Seenivasagam called it “a vicious and repulsive document, a document which is repulsive to all those who believe in democracy”. He found it “difficult to believe any citizen of this country could have drafted this Bill if he has the interests of his fellow citizens at heart”.

“This Security Bill not only attempts to deal with terrorism, but it also attempts to deal with any citizen who dares to open his mouth,” he added, and charged that the Government’s motive in promulgating it was “intimidation, political intimidation, not only of political organisations, but of the people of this country”.

Together with the amendment to Article 149, the Government also introduced constitutional amendments to allow the Prime Minister a say in the appointment of judges and to provide for the appointment of an Attorney-General who would be a member of the Government.

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Two days after the passing of the Internal Security Bill, the Alliance-controlled Dewan Rakyat approved the Prevention of Crime (Amendment) Bill which grants police officers powers of summary arrest. Five decades on, we are all suffering from these acts of Parliament.

In ending his speech on that fateful day that the ISA was born, D R Seenivasagam lamented, “[T]he conditions in this country have deteriorated to such an extent that the Police Force is likely to be turned into a terrorist organisation to terrorise the people of this country into submission to the will and pleasure of the Government.”

How sadly prophetic!

The ISA came into force on 1 August 1960, with the formal declaration of the end of the “Emergency” the day before. Since then, it has claimed more than 10,000 victims.

If nothing else, light a candle for democracy on 1 August.

Tan Pek Leng is an Aliran member.

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