Remove our ‘national security’ straightjacket!

"Work with me… not for me." – Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi. 


Dr Azly Rahman
[email protected]

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Former premier Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who ruled for 22 years, once spoke about the nine challenges called ‘The Way Forward-Vision’, said to be a culmination of his work throughout his tenure.

The document charted the challenges the nation must confront in order for it to develop on par with the advanced nations.

These challenges are summarised as follows:

1. Establishing a united Malaysian nation with a sense of common and shared destiny

2. Creating a psychologically liberated, secure, and developed Malaysian society with faith and confidence in itself, justifiably proud of what it is, of what it has accomplished, robust enough to face all manner of adversity

3. Fostering and developing a mature democratic society, practising a form of mature consensual, community-oriented Malaysian democracy that can be a model for many developing countries

4. Establishing a fully moral and ethical society whose citizens are strong in religious and spiritual values and with the highest ethical standards

5. Establishing a mature, liberal and tolerant society in which Malaysians of all colours and creed are free to practise and profess their customs, cultures and religious beliefs and yet feeling that they belong to one nation

6. Establishing a scientific and progressive society, a society that is innovative and forward-looking, one that is not only a consumer of technology but also a contributor to the scientific and technological civilisation of the future

7. Establishing a fully caring society and caring culture, a social system in which society will come before the self, in which welfare of the people will revolve not around the state or the individual but around a strong and resilient family system

8. Ensuring an economically just society… in which there is a fair and equitable distribution of the wealth of the nation, in which there is full partnership in economic progress

9. Establishing a prosperous society with an economy that is fully competitive, dynamic, robust and resilient

With the Internal Security Act (ISA), how do we then meet these challenges? How is it an antithesis to what a civil society means? Do we still deserve the ISA?

Snapshot of protests

We are on the threshold of 2008. We have created a larger middle class, educated and imbued not only the taste of progressive Western secularist ideals synthesised with deep cultural and/or religious values still preserved, but also a better understanding of the principles of human rights. We know that Malaysia ratified the 1946 Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We know that these involve the rights to the freedom of speech and assembly.

Our nation no longer deserves the ISA or any other intolerable Acts that kill the creativity and imagination of its nation. The ISA is an ideological state apparatus must go if we are to move forward as a nation that is known for it wisdom, intelligence, tolerance, and commitment to social justice – one that takes care of the needs of the poor of all races, without fear or favour.

The ISA which provides for detention without trial for up to two years at a time is anathema to the idea of a civil society. If we charge the detainees in court, we could learn a lot more about the meaning of ‘national security’. It is not merely about maintaining public order but about trying to understand why citizens are publicly acting in manner deemed ‘disorderly’. The history of the use of the ISA is tied to the history of the ruling class and how those who own the means of production own the means of silencing progressive voices of change.

Let us look at some snapshots of the protest movements in our history:

Why did Raja Haji the legendary Bugis warrior mount a revolt against the Dutch, ending in his martyrdom atop a hill in Malacca? Why did Mat Kilau, the legendary warrior from Pekan Pahang act up against the British ending in his mysterious self-imposed exile and death by natural cause at the age of 122? Why did the Malay Nationalist Party, a continuation of Kesatuan Rakyat Indonesia Semenajung and an early radical Malay party in the late 1940s act up, only to be met with witch-hunts by the returning British?

Why did those fighting for Independence in the 1950s under the banner of Saberkas act up against the dying colonial British Empire, paving the way for the creation of what is now knows as United Malay National Organisation? Why did those truly multiracial group of social activists act up by organising the hartal against the British in the early 1960s only to be met with heavy- handed reaction? Why did those calling themselves the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army revolt against the powers-that-be, end their persecution by the British that returned to power when the Allied Powers crushed the Axis Powers?

Why did the Malaysian intellectuals and social activists speak out over almost 20 years of the Kondrietiff cycle, beginning from May 13, 1969 to October 1989, to this moment in time to be met with the American McCarthy Era-type of response form the present government?

The answer lies in economics. Human existence, motivation, the rise and fall of nations has been attributed to economics. One's existence is defined by the material condition on is in or born into.

Question of power

Deeper than simple economics lies the question of power and the powerless, and the politics of under- representation. The Americans revolted against the British in the late 1770s under the banner ‘no taxation without representation’, symbolically registering their protest with the Boston Tea Party.

Essentially they revolted against intolerable laws set forth by the British – the 1765 Quartering Act and Stamp Act of 1765, Townshend Act 1967 and Coercive Acts 1774.

In our case, the answer lies in the ideology of Malaysia-style Oriental Despotism. The complex, dynamic, systematic, contradictory, sustaining, and consensual politics of the political-economy of a dependent communal-based capitalist state has made it possible for the use of the ISA to be rationalised and legitimised by arguments that touch merely on the symptoms of the breakdown of public order, rather that the root cause of the order in which the public need to be organised.

Had there been a sound developmentalist agenda from the onset of Independence – an agenda that retards the evolution of a corrupt corporate capitalist pluralist neo-feudalistic neo-colonialist capitalist state – we would have avoided or abandoned the use of the ISA and seen the evolution of a truly civil society that practises politics of inclusion.

To put it in simple words: we have made the wrong historical turn. We have to come back to where we began – back to the drawing board. This is the challenge – how do we undo hyper-modernisation and the politics of mistrust?

We are actually doomed as a nation. We need to get out of this quagmire if we are to save ourselves from total destruction in an age wherein the centre cannot hold, as the poet WB Yeats wrote.

How are we doomed? Why have we come to a point in which the ultimate keris – the ISA – is used to silence the voices asking the government to look into the plight of the oppressed and the desolate? Why is the voice of reason cast aside and force used instead? What might the consequence of this in an age of globalised, high speed, split-second information flow, consumption, and instantaneous revolution?

How do we evolve – or rise form the ashes of destruction brought about by internal contradictions that we have failed to resolve?

This nation needs to conduct soul-searching. Urgently.