Ops Lalang haunts, 23 years on

A similar swoop of more than 100 people under the ISA is unlikely to happen again, but the underlying ferment threatening the fragile stability of the country remains, no thanks to irresponsible politicians.


TOMORROW is Deepavali, the Hindu festival of lights. In its simplest form, it means an “array of lights”.

Its significance is to lead from darkness to light, from negative to positive or from evil to good.

Personally, for the past 23 years, this has always been a time to remember one ominous event in our history – Operasi Lalang (Weeding Operation).

On Oct 27, 1987, five days after the festival that year, 106 people – Opposition and Barisan Nasional politicians, academics and leaders of NGOs – were nabbed under the Internal Security Act (ISA).

It was also the day when the licences of three national newspapers – The Star, Sin Chew and the now defunct Watan – were withdrawn.

Among the notable detainees were then Opposition Leader and DAP secretary-general Lim Kit Siang, MP Karpal Singh, former Aliran head Dr Chandra Muzaffar and then and still MP for Pasir Mas Ibrahim Ali, now of Perkasa fame.

Most were released early but 40, including Kit Siang, his son, present Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng, Karpal, and several PAS leaders and social activists were held for two years.

The developments that led to the second largest ISA crackdown in our history – exceeded only by those detained during the May 13, 1969 riots – were triggered by rising political tensions with intense racial overtones.

The White Paper tabled in Parliament a year later stated that various groups had played up “sensitive issues”, creating “racial tension” in the country.

But it smacked of being orchestrated and allowed to escalate before the swoop took place, in a dangerous strategy of brinkmanship.

Let me share memories of the dark days when my colleagues and I were jobless for five months.

The most productive and fruitful use of time must surely be attributed to current group chief editor Datuk Seri Wong Chun Wai.

Apparently, the then reporter in the Penang office put aside his troubles to pursue one of his biggest challenges – courting a girl in a bank who had caught his eye.

That girl, a former state athlete, is now his wife, Datin Seri Flo­rence.

Three other colleagues in Penang set up a pizza outlet while others drove taxis, set up pasar malam stalls and such.

N.D. Raj, now production editor, who had blown most of his money on his wedding earlier in the month and the rest on a lavish Deepavali bash, was among those in dire straits.

He took a job as a carpenter, mostly turning screws into an endless number of hinges each day.

As for me, then Malacca staff correspondent, I accepted the first job that came along – fisherman.

Together with Charles Cham, the head of the editorial art department in our headquarters in Peta­ling Jaya (who has since made a name for himself as an artist around the world), I went fishing with the father and son team of Lionel and Martin Theseira.

Two days of being tossed about in a tiny boat made us both sea sick and put paid to any chance of my making it a career.

The Star only paid us a quarter of our meagre salaries during the five months, making life truly tough.

The first few days of Ops Lalang were particularly daunting, especially when almost all the politicians whom I knew well in Malacca were detained, beginning with the first two to be picked up – Guan Eng and Kerk Kim Hock.

One friend in the police Special Branch gave hints that journalists might be in the “next wave” of arrests, suggesting that the racially sensitive Bukit China development issue which I had focused on, could include me in the dragnet.

So, I was mentally prepared to be taken away and often woke up to the slightest sound of barking of dogs or cars passing by outside my house.

One night when my wife, who was then working in an electronics plant, was on the graveyard shift, a car stopped outside the house at around midnight and there were tapping sounds on the iron grille.

I was so ready that I had even packed a plastic bag with a toothbrush, toothpaste, sarong, a T-shirt, underwear and two books to read.

After kissing my sleeping two-year-old son, I went to open the door.

But it was a major anti-climax. The expected “SB” turned out to be my two sisters and a relative who were returning from a temple event.

A relative had dropped them off and they had forgotten the house keys.

As for work, it was a terrible time of inaction and lethargy. At our headquarters in PJ, most reporters ended up in the office playing scrabble. (It was long before the Internet or computer games era.)

It was a great relief for all of us when The Star’s licence was reinstated in March 1988.

For many of us, the five months showed who our real friends were, especially from among the usually publicity-hungry politicians.

It’s highly unlikely that a similar swoop of so many people under the ISA would ever happen again but the underlying ferment that threatens the fragile stability of Malaysia remains, no thanks to irresponsible politicians.

Many politicians on both sides of the fence (some have since crossed over and re-invented themselves) are guilty of creating tension in the last three weeks of October 1987. They know who they are.

Malaysians must be wary that these manipulators of emotions can still lead them to the brink of catastrophe, in their pursuit of power and ambitions.

It’s this kind of politicians who should be weeded out when the time comes.

Associate Editor M. Veera Pandiyan likes this line from an old nursery rhyme: A man of words and not of deeds is like a garden full of weeds.