Emergency Legislation and the Demonisation of Socialists in Malaysia


The Home Ministry has not been able to provide figures for the numbers arrested and detained since the EO’s introduction in 1969 mainly because of the arbitrary manner in which such detentions have been made. Nevertheless, SUARAM has obtained a figure of EO detainees of 3701 for the period 2000 to 2009. And as at February 2010, there were 819 detainees in Simpang Rengam detention camp.

By Dr Kua Kia Soong, Director of SUARAM

The incarceration of the six leaders of Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM) under the Emergency Ordinance, yet another detention-without-trial law in Malaysia and the attempt by the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) government to justify this using the age-old “communist bogey” has exposed its bankruptcy of ideas.  In replaying the old gramophone, the ruling coalition has unwittingly laid bare their demonization of socialists since the early days of Independence when socialists were the main threat to their hold on political power.

My new book entitled “Patriots & Pretenders: The Malayan Independence Struggle” (due in the next few months) attempts to give a Malaysian people’s history of this period. It will show Malaysians who have thus far not have access to these facts about our history that the present regime has clung to power this long only through authoritarian laws allowing detention without trial and demonizing socialists through the state-controlled media.


The Emergency, 1948-60

The Emergency was really a crackdown on the workers’ movement which was well-organised and coordinated and the anti-colonial movement which had risen to oppose the colonial power’s constitutional proposals. These two movements also happened to be truly multi-ethnic in composition and principles and opposed to the colonial government’s attempt at divide-and-rule. They were led by socialists who threatened the economic interests of the western powers and their local comprador capitalists.

Under the Emergency, the police were given wide powers of arrest and detention. It is worth noting that under these colonial Essential Regulations Proclamations, while detention for 12 months (and later two years) was imposed, at least trial procedures were maintained. (Short, A. ‘The Communist Insurrection in Malaya 1948-60’ 1975:45)

Detention and registration proved to be the most important enactments for the colonial crackdown. By the end of 1948 alone, 5000 were held under detention orders. (Anne Munro-Kua, ‘Authoritarian Populism in Malaysia’, Macmillan London 1996:21) The second prong of the colonial strategy was of course the Resettlement Policy introduced in 1948 to round the rural Chinese up into “New Villages”. In 1948, they numbered around 300,000 (ibid). It was the making of a police state in our country. According to a British official at the time, V. Purcell:

“There was no human activity from the cradle to the grave that the police did not superintend…The real rulers of Malaya were not Gerald Templer or his troops but the Special Branch of the Malayan Police…What Gerald Templer had ordered was virtually a levy en masse, in which there were no longer any civilians and the entire population were either soldiers or bandits…the means had become superior to the end.” (ibid, p.22)

Deportation/banishment was another method to deal with socialists. The numbers involved can be seen in this dispatch from the Colonial office to the Foreign Office in London:

“…propose to expel Chinese from Malaya at the rate of 2000 a month. In normal conditions in China we would certainly have expected very vigorous representation from the Chinese government about the regulations… However, the reactions of the Chinese Central Government, whose days are numbered, are not of great importance one way or another… I must say that I think that the absence of any check on the executive in this mass expulsion of residents of Malaya is unfortunate, and that in practice grave injustice is liable to be done to individuals. I should have thought it possible, by the exercise of ingenuity, to have provided for some sort of review of executive action in appropriate cases. Certainly, had such provision been made, the scope for propaganda against barbarous British injustices would have been less…The fact is that Whitehall has been presented with a fait accompli.” (From Secretary of State, CO to foreign Secretary, 17 Jan 1949, FO 371/1011)

Throughout the Emergency, the colonial government used all propaganda means to demonise socialists, portraying them as materialistic heathens and incompatible with Islam. The large numbers of Malays detained (more than 1000) soon after the Emergency was declared was not publicized for the same communalist consideration. (Cheah, BK, ‘The Masked Comrades: A Study of the Communist United Front in Malaya, 1945-48, 1979:63) Among them were most of the Malay Nationalist Party (MNP) leaders including Ahmad Boestaman and Ishak Haji Mohammed.


The Socialist Front

The irony was lost on the ruling Alliance government that when we attained “Merdeka” in 1957, the colonial state of Emergency was still in existence. Consequently, the fundamental liberties enshrined in the Constitution were conveniently overridden by Article 149, giving Parliament special powers to deal with an emergency and Article 150, providing the Executive with special powers to deal with an emergency. There were certain safeguards in the two original Articles to restrict the possibility of Executive abuse but these were dispensed with in the amendments of 1959. (Hickling, R.H. ‘Essays in Malaysian Law’, 1991:134)

The Emergency was only declared officially over in 1960 but it was immediately replaced by an equally repressive Internal Security Act (ISA).

In the newly independent Malaya, the Socialist Front (SF) coalition was the main challenge to the Alliance. The SF was a truly multi-ethnic coalition which succeeded in organizing the working class of all the ethnic groups as well as the middle class progressives. It challenged the neo-colonial policies of the Alliance and the continued exploitation of Malayan workers and resources. It was especially successful at the municipal level and controlled local councils in many towns and cities such as Penang. At the national level, the SF provided articulate and dynamic leadership and they also succeeded in mobilizing grass roots support.

The Opposition collectively obtained nearly half the total votes in the 1959 general elections. The SF won eight parliamentary seats, PMIP thirteen and PPP won four seats.

The Alliance met this political challenge again through the use of detention without trial, initially through the Emergency Regulations but after 1960, through the ISA. The SF domination of local councils was dealt with by the suspension of local government elections in 1965.

In the face of this political challenge by the SF, the Alliance government began to raise the ‘communist bogey’ in order to demonise the socialists and to justify detention without trial. In 1966, during the Bukit Asahan rubber estate dispute that was supported by the SF, 58 and 35 more were arrested under the ISA, including their lawyer MP Karam Singh. Later other SF leaders, Lim Joo and SN Rajah and union leaders including Lee Ban Chen were also arrested under the ISA. The growing strength of the SF was a factor in trade union revival since the activism of the 1940s. (Anne Munro-Kua, 1996:46)

Tun Razak, then Home Minister claimed that the arrest of large numbers of SF leaders was actually “to help the opposition parties purge their organizations of communist elements.”

From 1960 onwards, there were frequent arrests. The first mass arrest was in November 1960, followed by others in late 1961 and 1962. The official figure in August 1961 was of 108 ISA cases, 67 detained under the Emergency Regulations. (ibid, p.46) The victims included SF people’s representatives, trade unionists, students and teachers. The depletion of SF leaders was also accomplished by restrictions on their political activities after their release from detention.

During ‘Operation Coldstore’ in February 2, 1963, more than 100 Opposition leaders including the Secretary-General of the Singapore SF, Lim Chin Siong, students and unionists were detained under the ISA. Ahmad Boestaman, leader of Parti Rakyat (part of SF) was the first MP to be detained under the ISA. A mass arrest of opposition leaders decimated the central executive committee of Parti Rakyat, leaving just two members. The official rationale for these detentions was “their communist activities”. (ibid)

Another Labour Party (part of SF) MP, Lim Chook Tong was deprived of his citizenship and banished from the country even though he was born and raised in this country. He had been detained for two previous years. More SF leaders were arrested and detained under the ISA before the 1964 general elections. (ibid)


The 1969 Emergency Ordinance

To protest against the detentions of so many SF leaders and the phony democracy, the SF decided to boycott the 1969 general elections. This political vacuum provided an opportunity for the Democratic Action Party to emerge in 1965 to champion the frustrations of the people. The results of the 1969 general elections and the pogrom that followed has been described and analysed in my 2007 title on ‘May 13’.

The Emergency Ordinance (Public Order and Prevention of Crime) 1969 (EO) – yet another law that enables detention without trial – was legislated “for securing public order, the suppression of violence and the prevention of crimes including violence.”

Since its introduction, the EO has been used to detain alleged criminals without charging them. The EO provides the police with powers to detain persons for up to 60 days for the purpose of “preventing any person from acting in a manner prejudicial to public order” and the “suppression of violence or the prevention of crimes.” There is no necessity for a remand order from a magistrate. All that is required is for a deputy superintendent to report the circumstances of the arrest to the IGP. After the initial 60-day detention period, the Home Minister can make an order of detention without trial for a period of two years.

As the majority of the victims of EO tend not to be political dissidents or well-known personalities, the public has been less aware of the existence of the EO compared to the ISA. Consequently, the police have been abusing their powers through the years by arresting thousands of individuals without ever bringing them to court. Although the authorities tend to characterize EO detainees as underworld kingpins and dangerous criminals, SUARAM has received numerous reports of individuals arrested under the EO for alleged petty crimes.

The Home Ministry has not been able to provide figures for the numbers arrested and detained since the EO’s introduction in 1969 mainly because of the arbitrary manner in which such detentions have been made. Nevertheless, SUARAM has obtained a figure of EO detainees of 3701 for the period 2000 to 2009. And as at February 2010, there were 819 detainees in Simpang Rengam detention camp. (SUARAM Human Rights Report 2010)


The EO and the PSM 6

The arrest and detention of the six leaders of Parti Sosialis Malaysia under the EO just before the Bersih rally is thus a departure from the BN government’s usual practice of using the ISA against political leaders and activists. And true to form, they have contradicted themselves over the reasons for their detention. First the police said that it was in relation to the Bersih rally but soon decided to use the old method of trying to demonise socialists by saying that these PSM leaders were carrying T-shirts glorifying communism. In any decent court of law, the judge would have awarded these six PSM leaders their habeas corpus applications after studying such flimsy and contradictory allegations by the police.

Why the Continuing Demonisation of Socialists?

As in the past, the fact that the government has chosen to detain without trial these six socialist leaders although Malaysians of all kinds participated in the Bersih rally of July 9, shows that the BN government sees socialists as a threat to their neo-liberal capitalist rule. 

The BN government knows that in contrast to the myriad parties in the Malaysian political arena, socialists are the real threat to their exploitation of Malaysia’s workers and resources. In contrast to the tendency toward opportunism and careerism among politicians, socialists are unwavering and consistent in their commitment to a socialist road to development as opposed to neo-liberalism.

Neo-liberal policies have allowed multi-national corporations and the big companies to plunder the country’s resources, buying up privatized resources at rock bottom prices. We have seen the tendency for powerful capitalist interests to control resources and markets and cheap labour. This has been helped by a corrupt and non-transparent government. The price has been paid by workers and the poor whose living standards continue to be pushed downwards. 

But globalisation and neo-liberalism has also produced global resistance. This resistance to unrestrained neo-liberalism is led by socialists who try to empower oppressed people in the process of democratic participatory socialism. Under such a system, workers and the community make economic decisions that affect them. Popular democratic participation is not just in economic but also political institutions. There is a need for state intervention and nationalization of basic resources such as oil and gas, water, energy, health, education and social services. Unfettered capital transfers by speculators and finance capitalists must be checked.

Socialists believe that real democracy will never be attained only through periodic general elections and relying on parliament alone. Only through direct action and mass movement will there be true grassroots democracy. Power will be based on the self-organisation of workers and other communities in their struggle against capital. Directly elected workplace and community councils take responsibility for their own affairs and link this to decisions for society at large. This is the basis of democratic planning in a socialist order. 

Is it any wonder that the guardians of global neo-liberalism will doggedly resist any attempts to stop them? But resist we must!

And the immediate demand is for the forthwith release of the PSM6 and an end to the demonization of socialists!