Malaysia’s Culture of Political and Social Oppression

By Nurul Izzah Anwar

In recent years, Malaysia has seen a huge wave of migrations, with an estimated one million Malaysians now living abroad. The UK is now home to over 50,000 Malaysian citizens. Many travel to the UK to study or work, and choose not to return to Malaysia, often stifled by the lack of civil liberties and basic human rights in their own back yard. This is compounded by the race-based economic and social policies selectively championed by the ruling United Malay National Organisation(UMNO) that enriches a few at the expense of majority Malays who remain poor and where  many non-Malays feel that they are often treated as second class citizens.

On Saturday the 30th of October 2010, Malaysians from all over the UK will be peacefully protesting outside the Malaysian Tourism Office in Trafalgar Square against the continued use of Malaysia’s draconian Internal Security Act, a throwback from the days of British colonial rule that allows for indefinite arbitrary detention without trial. The right to peaceful assembly and protest is not something that Malaysians take lightly.

In Malaysia, a police permit is required for gatherings of five people or more and peaceful civil society protests are often met with water cannons, tear gas and arrests. Similar protests in Malaysia in August saw the arrest of 36 people. Such crackdowns on basic civil liberties have ignited a debate amongst Malaysians abroad, galvanising them to stand in solidarity with their countrymen back home and help draw the attention of the international community to Malaysia’s dismal human rights record. 


The Internal Security Act(1960) was drafted by colonial British lawyer R.H Hickling, to use against Communist insurgents bent on armed struggle. Over the last 50 years, more than 10,000 people have been detained under the ISA. Despite the Malaysian government often claiming that the ISA is an anti-terror law, no detainees have ever been charged in a court of law for acts of terrorism. The protest on the 30th of October marks the twenty-third anniversary of Operasi Lalang when then Prime Minister Dr.Mahathir Mohammad used the ISA to detain more than a hundred civil society activists, political opposition leaders, educationalists and religious converts.

Many in my generation will be too young to remember or understand the exact reasons for the government clampdown in 1987. However what is clear is that the arrests were made following the escalation of political tensions with worrying racial undertones, not dissimilar to the sort of climate the current government appears intent on fostering today. As a result, respected academics like Dr Kua Kia Soong, veteran opposition politicians Lim Kit Siang and his son Lim Guan Eng, veteran lawyer and politician Karpal Singh, Women’s Aid Organisation leader Irene Xavier and PAS leaders Khalid Samad, Mohd Sabu and Mahfuz Omar amongst others, lost almost two years of their lives in arbitrary detention. What they endured was harrowing, demeaning and completely unjust. But what remains unspoken by and large was the suffering and pain also endured by their spouses and families. I highly recommend Kua Kia Soong’s book ‘445 days under the ISA’ for an insight into what goes on behind the barb wire of Kamunting and the devastating impact the ISA has on the family and friends of those detained.

In the last year the Malaysian government has launched a number of initiatives to revamp its image abroad. These include recent bilateral talks with UK Foreign Secretary William Hague and a series of high profile tourism and hospitality campaigns including a Malaysian food festival at Trafalgar Square, a booth at the Chelsea Flower Show and an address by Sarawak Chief Minister and Taib Mahmud at a Global Islamic Branding and Marketing Forum in Oxford. In June this year, Malaysia contentiously sought re-election to the UN Human Rights Council, and paid lip-service to a series of promises on human right’s reforms, including reviewing the ISA. To date, no such review has been forthcoming. 

However, Malaysia’s repressive laws continue to cast a gloomy shadow over the nation. Corruption remains endemic and Malaysia’s corruption perception ranking dropped to 57th place globally in Transparency International’s 2009 report.  Foreign direct investment into Malaysia continues to dwindle, with Malaysia now lagging behind other regional neighbours such as the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia.

For a country who was a leader in the region in the 1960s-1980s and was sending engineers to South Korea to assist with their technology development, this is a sad state of affairs that can only be attributed to the financial mismanagement and lack of accountability and transparency that have become so endemic in the current form of governance. 

Despite gaining independence from British colonial rule more than 53 years ago, Malaysians have only ever known one –party rule. The UMNO-led Barisan National (National Front) has won 12 successive general elections since independence, a feat that would be considered preposterous in most other countries claiming to be a democracy. The ISA remains a crucial component of the Barisan National’s toolkit for immobilising and paralysing the political opposition and civil society, and hence ensuring their continued political dominance and survival.

In a speech at the recent UMNO party conference, Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak warned of  “crushed bodies”, “lost lives” and “ethnic cleansing” if UMNO failed to hold onto power. Such phrases are completely irresponsible and a reflection of the sort of scare-mongering and state sponsored psychological terrorism that we have become all too familiar with. 

We must not forget that Barisan National also boasts an impressive array of other equally repressive laws aimed at curtailing freedom of expression, association and thought. These include the Press and Printing Act 1984 that require newspapers to apply for annual renewal of their printing permits, the University College and Colleges Act that prevents students from participating in political societies, and the Sedition Act that is frequently used to curtail freedom of expression and public debate.

The utter control of the government over mainstream media, the arrests and charging of the 4 UKM students earlier this year for observing the Hulu Selangor by-elections and the calls by UMNO led quarters to charge Chinese rapper and singer Namewee under the Sedition Act is testimony to the fact that the Malaysian government’s brand of Orwellian politics is alive and thriving. 

Indeed it is a chilling state of affairs when even cartoonists are not spared. Last month, Malaysian cartoonist, Zunar, famous for his comic take on Malaysian politics and current affairs was arrested, following the banning of his book ‘1FunnyMalaysia’, on the eve of the launch of his latest compilation ‘Cartoon-Oh-Phobia‘. Home Ministry secretary-general Mahmood Adam claimed that ‘the cartoons were a threat to national security’, Readers and vendors were threatened with up to 3 years’ jail or a fine of up to RM20,000 for being in possession of the publication.  

Unless the Malaysian government starts to take socio-political reform seriously, our country may remind others of George Orwell’s book ‘Ninety Eighty-Four’. Its efforts to be taken as a serious player on the international stage will be in vain. The anniversary of Operasi Lalang provides a timely opportunity for the Malaysian government to repeal the Internal Security Act and revert to the rule of law. No act would go further to restoring the confidence and respect of the Malaysian people and providing the Malaysian government with the credibility and image overhaul it so desires. Till then, Malaysians will have to look elsewhere for the civil liberties and basic freedoms that people in many other parts of the world take for granted. 


If you happen to be in London, please join the ISA Protest Walk on Saturday the 30th of October 2010.  The walk starts with a protest at the Malaysian High Commission in Belgrave Square from 4pm- 4.45pm (Nearest Tube: Hyde Park Corner). The walk will then proceed to Trafalgar Sq where there will be a further protest outside the Malaysian Tourism Office the before a Wayang Kulit show at dusk, ending at 7pm.