Home Web Specials 2013 Web Specials Ghost of ISA, Operasi Lalang 1987 continues to haunt nation

Ghost of ISA, Operasi Lalang 1987 continues to haunt nation

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Two years after the Prime Minister announced the repeal of the ISA, his administration has resurrected detention without trial. Kasthuri Patto recalls the suffering of ISA detainees.


Many would remember the headlines of The Star dated 28 October 1987 which screamed “DETAINED. 19 PICKED UP IN SWOOP. OPERATION LALLANG ISA ARRESTS”.

On the front page appeared pictures of 15 freedom fighters and activists, victims, who had been detained under various charges, all concocted and falsified by the then Home Minister and the government for holding views opposing to those in power.

The ‘Operasi Lalang’ mass arrests were ‘successfully’ carried out on 27 October 1987, 26 years ago, and will always be remembered as “Black October” in Malaysian politics as quoted by DAP advisor Chen Man Hin. An official tally of 106 detentions under the horrific Internal Security Act 1960 was made – activists from political parties, parliamentarians, civil rights leaders, educationists, lecturers, church workers, Islamic preachers, engineers, researchers, lawyers, trade unionists, and NGO activists – but the total number is said to be higher. Their charges? A dead-beat tune of “being a threat to national security”.

Those who were detained were never brought to court and tried under a worn-out charge of being “a threat to national security”, something that would not have stood the acid test of a judicial system in a court of law. It was absolutely dreadful that voicing out legitimate concerns and articulating the rights of every Malaysian regardless of race, religion or creed could be deciphered as inciting, provoking and even to some extent rabble-rousing racial tension and anxiety by the then Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, an indictment that all the accused shared.

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In the 1986 general elections, Umno had got 1.5m votes whereas the DAP garnered 1.0m votes. In other words, one million voters supported what the DAP was fighting for – a Malaysian Malaysia, where every Malaysian must be treated equally and judged not by race, religion, or creed but by his or her character.

In the Johor Bahru by-election on 25 August 1988, an enormous number of voters rejected the policies of Dr Mahathir, particularly over the mass detention without trial under “Operasi Lalang”, demanding that the ISA detainees particularly those who would be serving the two-year detention orders – including DAP leaders such as Lim Kit Siang, Karpal Singh, P Patto, Lim Guan Eng, V David, Lau Dak Kee, Chian Heng Kai, Chan Kok Kit and Tan Seng Giaw; Pas leaders such as Mohd Sabu, Khalid Samad, Suhaimi Said, Mahfuz Omar and others; and civil rights leaders – be released immediately. That demand, of course, fell on deaf ears.

This treacherous ‘survival of the fittest’, had driven the then government to exert its authoritarian and absolute power to grossly abuse an act that was never enacted to deal with legitimate opposition and critics of the government.

Because of that, many detainees encountered the deaths and the loss of loved ones in their families as well the births and new additions to their families while serving time under the ISA. These political detainees were subject to many kinds of interrogation and accusation, but the worst of all, were the charges hurled at them of being unpatriotic and inflaming racial sentiments, making them all victims of political persecution when it was the government who embarked on chauvinistic utterances in instigating and stoking racial tension amongst the various ethnicities in the country.

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My father, the late P Patto, also served 18 months under this draconian law in the infamous Kem Tahanan Perlindungan Kamunting, Taiping, where he also graduated with the rest of his peers and comrades. The despicable charges launched against him and other ISA detainees seemed to be not far off from each other. This act of demonisation of the ISA detainees could not break the tenacity and the steadfast determination of my late father and his comrades in upholding the tenets of the party, the struggle for a free, democratic Malaysian Malaysia based on the principles of human rights, equality, social and economic justice founded on the institution of parliamentary democracy.

Even if hell was going to freeze over, giving up was never an option, and they were not going down without a fight. And what a great fight they put up.

Through steady, consistent, political and civil pressure, Prime Minister Najib Razak, self-declared ‘Bapa Transformasi’ made a much anticipated announcement on the eve of Malaysia Day, 15 September 2011, that the wretched draconian ISA would finally be repealed. This move was accepted in good faith and was supposed to propel the PM as a visionary with many, many transformation programmes up his sleeve.

Two years down a rocky road, the cries of the PM have turned out to be nothing more than lip-service aimed at securing support and garnering votes for his own survival in Umno and grasping on to the helm of leading this sovereign nation. Unpardonably, he has been tight-lipped in the deafening silence surrounding the recent Prevention of Crime Act, a new bill – the ISA in disguise. The PCA is sacrosanct, untouchable, with no judicial review, and continues the cursed legacy of detention without trial much to the disgust of parliamentarians, lawyers, human rights activists and peace-loving Malaysians alike.

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The greatest irony here in Malaysia is that, while the Prime Minister condemns acts of violation of international laws in Syria and Egypt according to the United Nations Charter, heavy-handed decisions to implement a barbaric, oppressive law continue to triumph in curtailing human rights and marring a just judicial process in his own backyard. And he seems to be unaware and unaffected by it.

The PM must break his silence and make his stand on his flip-flop, U-turn ‘transformations’ with regards to political reform in Malaysia. A first step towards a mature democratic, free, just and fair Malaysia.

For all the ISA detainees who are no more with us today – P Patto, V David, Chian Heng Kai, Chan Kok Kit and other fallen soldiers, we will continue your struggle and fight for a just, righteous, free and democratic nation. For a Malaysian Malaysia.


Kasthuri Patto is the Member of Parliament for Batu Kawan

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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Ed G
Ed G
1 Nov 2013 4.34pm

The unkindest cut of all for those detainees of Ops Lallang was the support that the majority of Malaysian threw behind the Government, or more specifically Dr.Mahathir during the 1990s. In fact, I have met some who even supported the action of the government by saying that it was a necessary trade-off for the economic progress achieved at that point of time. Those who were detained were looked upon as mere trouble-makers who were deservingly put away. I am glad that many of the victims of the unjust act had managed to stay true to their principles in spite of their sufferings and subsequent rejections that they had encountered during their incarceration and after their release. The shameful and despicable act, along with many others such as the May 13 riot and the Judiciary and Constitutional crises, should be continuously retold especially to the generations born after 1980 lest they are twisted or reduced to a mere footnotes our nation’s history by the government’s propagandists disguised as official historians.

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