Home 2008: 7 The BN national security state and the ISA

The BN national security state and the ISA

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 Invariably, the extensive powers vested in the Executive and the Police have resulted in an abuse of these powers, observes Francis Loh.


In order to defeat the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) during the Emergency (1948-60), the British colonial forces resorted to both outright war against the MCP as well as ‘law and order’ measures. The latter entailed the sponsorship of political parties like the MCA, relaxation of citizenship requirement for non-Malays, the formation of a ministerial system of government wherein local leaders were nominated to positions in the Executive, and finally the introduction of elections at the local, and then national, levels. The various political developments dealt a severe ideological blow to the MCP which could no longer claim that it was fighting a war of national liberation. With the defeat of the MCP, independence was proclaimed in 1957.    

National security state and coercive legislation

However, independence did not imply the ushering in of democracy. To preserve ‘law and order’, a variety of measures developed during the Emergency (1948-60) were adapted to the post-colonial constitutional system of government.

First, special councils and committees overseeing internal security affairs continued to be maintained at the federal and state levels. As during the Emergency, these committees brought together civilian and security officials. The National Security Council was presided over by the Minister of  Home Affairs, usually the Prime Minister himself, or a trusted aide.

Second, under Article 150 of the Federal Constitution – Proclamation of emergency –  far-reaching powers were made available to the government to rule without recourse to Parliament and elections.

Four Emergencies have been proclaimed since the end of the 1948-60 Emergency. Two of these covered the country as a whole, while two others were specific to particular states. The two nation-wide Emergencies were proclaimed in 1964, when konfrontasi  (literally, ‘confrontation’) broke out between Indonesia and Malaysia, and in 1969, following racial riots in Kuala Lumpur. On the latter occasion, parliament was suspended until early 1971.

In 1966 Emergency rule was also declared in Sarawak to remove the chief minister of the state, while in 1977, the federal government proclaimed an Emergency in Kelantan after the PAS-dominated state government collapsed. Threats of proclaiming Emergency rule on several other occasions have also caused on-going conflicts to be ameliorated, as in Sabah during 1985 to 1986.

Third, a plethora of coercive laws was also enacted as soon as the Emergency was officially declared over in 1960. The most draconian of these laws was the Internal Security Act (1960) which allowed for preventive detention.

Originally designed to be used against the MCP and those who were believed to advocate the use of violence to overthrow the government, it has subsequently been used to detain political opponents across the whole political spectrum: alleged Communists and Marxists, trade unionists, peasant leaders, student activists, Islamists, church workers, so-called racial chauvinists, opposition party leaders, NGO workers, and other dissidents, not to mention government members of parliament, secret society members, identity card and passport racketeers, counterfeiters, and smugglers of illegal aliens. Just weeks ago, the law was used to detain a journalist, a blogger and an executive council  of an opposition state government. Hence despite the end of a communist threat, the BN government has continued to maintain a ‘national security state’, using the ISA and other coercive laws, as though Malaysia’s everyday security is under threat.

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Below is an incomplete list of occasions when the ISA was resorted to and used to detain Malaysian citizens since the end of the Emergency*:

•    November 1960 to February 1961 against some 60 members of the Socialist Front (SF) suspected of ties with the communists;
•    1962 and 1963 against Parti Rakyat (PR) and Labour Party (LP) leaders, including Ahmad Boestamam who opposed the formation of Malaysia;
•    1965 against Dr Burhanuddin al-Helmy, Abdul Aziz Ishak, Hasnul Hadi, Ishak Mohammad, Dato’ Kampo Rodjo and Zailani Sulaiman, Dr Rajakumar, Tan Kai Hee, V David for allegedly working with Indonesians to oppose the formation of Malaysia;
•    1962 to 1974 against suspected members of the so-called ‘clandestine communist organizations’ in Sarawak who had opposed participation in the formation of Malaysia (which was viewed by critics in Sarawak as a ‘neo-colonial plot’);
•    April 1967 against the Asahan and Triang Estate workers led by the Federation of Plantation Workers who went on strike and launched a ‘long march’ of workers from Negri Sembilan to Kuala Lumpur;
•    1967 and 1968 against LP and Parti Rakyat leaders (like Lim Kean Siew and C C Yong) and supporters who were accused of pro-communist sympathies and whose activities were said to ‘threaten national security.’ This led to a decision by SF leaders to boycott the upcoming 1969 election;
•    after the May 1969 racial riots, against opposition leaders including Lim Kit Siang and V David;
•    January 1970 against two PR Pahang Assemblymen (Zulkifli Ismail and Siva Subramaniam);
•    November 1971 to 1973 against more than 200 people, mainly local workers and residents belonging to the LP and PR in Grik, Chemor and Kroh, and trade union leaders and members in Kedah, Perak, Penang and Selangor;
•    1974 and 1975 against student activists in various campuses throughout Malaysia who had demonstrated in support of urban squatters in Tasik Utara, Johore Bahru, and poor peasants in Baling, Kedah, and protested against US imperialism. Student leaders detained included Kamarulzaman Yacob, Ahmad Kamal Selamat, Ibrahim Ali, Rahman Rukhaini and Adi Satria.  Also arrested were lecturers Syed Husin Ali, Lim Mah Hui, Gurdial Singh Nijhar, and ABIM leader Anwar Ibrahim;
•    1974 against James Wong, leader of SNAP in Sarawak;
•    1976 against NST managing editor Samad Ismail, and following Samad’s çonfession’, six others including Abdullah Ahmad and Abdullah Majid, aides of then premier Tun Razak – who were accused of communist sympathies and part of a plot to seize leadership of UMNO. Just before and after these arrests, Parti Rakyat leaders like Kassim Ahmad and Razak Ahmad were also detained. (Significantly, these arrests coincided with an intra-UMNO leadership struggle);
•    1984 against PAS legal adviser Suhaimi Said
•    November 1985 against 36 Muslim villagers in Memali, Baling District led by Ibrahim Libya, who, allegedly was involved in deviant Islamic teachings. (Ibrahim was killed in the November assault);
•    1986 against the nomadic Penans in Sarawak who set up blockades to prevent logging companies from encroaching into their traditional lands;
•    October 1987 Operasi Lalang  (‘Operation Lalang’) involving the detention of 106 citizens including opposition politicians, NGO activists, church workers, etc. Among the politicians were Lim Kit Siang and his son Lim Guan Eng, Karpal Singh, P Patto, Mohd Sabu, Halim Arshat, Mahfuz Omar, Lau Dak Kee and Chan Kit Chee. Civic activitists included Lim Fong Seng, Kua Kia Soong, Sim Mow Yu, Mohd Nasir Hashim, Cecilia Ng, Chee Heng Leng, Irene Xavier, Bro Anthony Rogers, Theresa Lim Chin Chin, Chandra Muzaffar and Chow Chee Keong. Also arrested was a Muslim-convert to Christianity Yeshua Jamaluddin. These arrests coincided with another round of intra-UMNO leadership struggle;
•    September 1989 against two University of Malaya Islamic Undergraduates Union leaders Jamali Adnan and Jamaluddin Ramli for involvement in a demonstration against a concert, and Ahmad Lutfi Othman, Pas journalist, who had reported about their arrests;
•    September 1989 against six men for possession of ‘dangerous weapons’ (in fact bakakuk or home made shotguns in Sabah;
•    January 1991 against four leaders including Jeffrey Kitingan of then opposition Parti Bersatu Sabah who were allegedly involved in plans to secede from Malaysia;
•    September 1994 against Ashaari Muhammad, the leader of Darul-Arqam, allegedly a ‘Muslim deviationist movement’ whose success posed a challenge to UMNO. Later in August 1996, another 18 Arqam leaders were arrested;
•    1997 against Kamaruzaman Ismail and 9 Shiah Muslims who were accused of threatening security;
•    March 1998 against two Achenese accused of masterminding an outbreak of violence in the Sementih Detention Camp for refugees;
•    March and May 1998 against individuals including police and immigration officers for alleged involvement in bringing in illegal Indonesian workers;
•    September to December 1998 against former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, and then about 28 other reformasi activists who supported him. These arrests coincided with yet another round of intra-UMNO leadership struggle;
•    July 2000 against al-Ma’unah, a militant Islamic group, who allegedly stole arms from a military camp, and were involved in a stand-off with the military in Sauk, Perak.
•    2001 against Kumpulan Mujahidin Malaysia which allegedly had ties with Jemaah Islamiah, supposedly al-Qaeda’s proxy in the Southeast Asian region;
•    April 2001, arrest of 10 Parti Keadilan and reformasi activists following UMNO’s poor performance in the 1999 election. They were Dr Badrul Amin Bahron, Mohd Ezam, Saari Sungib, Gobalakrishnan, Tian Chua, Hishamuddin Rais; Badaruddin Ismail, Raja Petra, Lokman Noor Adam and Abdul Ghani Haron.
•    2002 to 2007 against alleged members of Jemaah Islamiah and Darul Islam Sabah, including foreign nationals;
•    November 2007, arrest of Hindraf leaders P Uthaya-kumar, V Ganabatirau, M Manoharan, R Kenghadaran, and K Vasantha Kumar.
•    September 2008 against Tan Hoon Cheng (journalist), Teresa Kok (MP and Selangor State Executive Councillor, and Raja Petra Kamarudin (blogger and editor of Malaysia Today). The latest arrests coincided with yet another round of intra-UMNO struggles.
(* a comprehensive list of names of ISA detainees and the occasions they were arrested between 1960 to 2001 can be obtained in Koh Swee Yong, Malaysia: 45 years under the ISA (Petaling Jaya; SIRD, 2004)


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Under the pretext of maintaining political stability and preventing ethno-religious conflict in the country, as well as promoting development, the Barisan Nasional government introduced a plethora of coercive laws like the ISA, and declared several occasions of Emergency rule. Indeed, despite the regular holding of elections and the legal trappings of a democracy many local and foreign scholars have classified Malaysia as a ‘quasi democracy,’ a ‘semi-democracy’, a ‘semi-authoritarian state’, and even a ‘national security state’   These studies have also highlighted how the BN state resorts to ‘coercive legalism or ‘rule by Law’ to maintain its power.

The origins of this ‘national security state’ can be traced to the Emergency when the communist insurrection was viewed first and foremost as a ‘law and order’ problem, rather than a military one. From that period onwards, the priority was given to establishing the authority of the government over the rural squatters via comprehensive administrative measures, the introduction of legal means to deal harshly with those who resisted, and the offer of some sod to those who obeyed.

Although the Communist insurrection was brought to an end and independence was achieved, democratisation did not really follow. Under the rubric of preserving national security, various restrictions on civil liberties and comprehensive penetration of the state into civil society were embedded into the Malaysian political process in the form of coercive legalism as epitomized in the Internal Security Act and other restrictive laws. Significantly, the ISA has been used time and time again to detain not only alleged Communist subversives, but also critics, dissidents and criminals. Thus, to maintain power, the BN has resorted not only to legitimise itself via the delivery of economic goods, but also by means of the use of coercive legalism in which the Police have played an indispensable role, not unlike the role played by the military elsewhere in the region.

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Invariably, the extensive powers vested in the Executive and the Police resulted in an abuse of these powers as has been charged by the ISA detainees, human rights group and the semi-official Human Rights Commission of Malaysia.  No doubt, it is time for the ISA to go. And with the repeal of the ISA and other relared coercive laws, perhaps, Malaysia can be transformed from a national security state to a more democratic one wherein the civil and political rights of the rakyat are placed centre-stage.

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