Malaysia in the Era of Globalization #86

By M Bakri Musa


Chapter 10: Freedom, Justice, and the Law
Personal Liberty in Malaysia – The Abomination That is the ISA

To me the ISA is an abomination. If indeed the Act is for the protection of society, as its supporters suggest, then it has failed miserably. ISA did not prevent the May 1969 tragedy, the 1984 Memali massacre, or more recently, the equally deadly Kampong Medan melee.
Surprisingly, the government chose not to use this powerful statute to arrest members of the Al Maunah group involved in the deadly arms heist in 2000 of the army camp in Grik, Perak. Instead the state charged them with waging war against the King. Surely such a crime is the ultimate threat to peace. If there is one situation where the ISA would have been appropriate, this is it. But the government opted for an open trial where its evidence was subjected to cross-examination and public display. There was no indication that the nation’s security and safety were compromised by the subsequent open trial.
If the Al Maunah members could be apprehended and successfully prosecuted using statutes other than the ISA, I see no compelling reason why those presently detained under the Act could not be treated in a similar manner. If, as has been intimated, the ISA detainees were bent on overthrowing the legally elected government of Malaysia through violent street demonstrations, charge them with inciting a riot. Get the evidences out in the open so the public could scrutinize them. Reveal the evil intent of these perpetrators.
ISA is not meant to be a substitute for incompetent prosecutors or inept police investigations. Truth is, the ISA is presently being used not to protect the public but as a crude weapon to coerce the government’s increasingly effective critics. Distressingly, the law is also being used to silence political adversaries as well as scholars who dare to voice their dissent.
Taking away a citizen’s freedom without due process is a serious matter. It is disgraceful to read that in the rounds of arrests in 2001, the honorable home minister (and also deputy prime minister) Abdullah Badawi had delegated such enormous powers to his lowly bureaucrats. I would have thought that as the minister in charge, he would have given such decisions the gravity and solemnity they rightly deserve. To hear him say that he was in effect “out of the loop” is simply unacceptable. Surely he must have had some evidence of the dangers posed by these individuals for him to order their detention. Thus once they were detained, he should be intensely interested in the details of their supposedly treacherous plot. Were there dangerous weapons stashed away, and was this part of a larger conspiracy, possibly with foreign involvement? Had the interrogations revealed a more serious threat, the minister would want that information quickly so appropriate preemptive measures could be taken. By waiting passively for a report from his subordinates, the minister wasted precious time. Besides, to treat such decisions casually goes beyond simple incompetence. It is a flagrant dereliction of ministerial duty, bordering on criminality.
Abdullah Badawi’s remark reflects, at best, a flippancy that is grossly inappropriate; at worse, a callous and sinister mindset. These are our fellow citizens whose freedoms are being violated. He acts as if such important decisions are not worthy of his personal attention and deliberation.
      I would have been comforted had Abdullah said that he was indeed following the situation closely and that jailing someone without trial was a decision he took with a heavy heart, but due to the sensitive nature of the investigations, he was unable to divulge the details. I would still oppose his decision but at least I would know that he had discharged his ministerial duty diligently and that he had not used that immense power arbitrarily and capriciously. Or worse, delegated that awesome authority to his underlings.
      As can be seen with the episode on the senseless beating of Anwar Ibrahim while in police custody, it takes only one overzealous officer to humiliate the entire nation. I expect our government ministers to be chief executives of their agency and be on top of matters under their authority. Abdullah Badawi, if he was truly unaware of the circumstances of the arrests, behaved more like a symbolic sultan rather than as an engaged executive. If this pattern of behavior portends his future performance as prime minister, Malaysians ought to be worried.
Like the frightened and weakened nobility at the time of the French Revolution, today’s Malaysian political nobles are using the ISA as a carte blanche to browbeat the masses. Malaysians today are in the worst possible position: Having a bad law (ISA) administered by an inept minister.
The government had another round of arrests under the ISA of suspected extremist Muslims following the 9-11 attacks. Unlike previous roundups, this time the government was spared any criticism from the West. Indeed Law Minister Rais Yatim, on a visit to Washington, DC, in May 2002, crowed that the US Attorney General was highly supportive of Malaysia’s ISA! It took the American embassy in Kuala Lumpur days before it denied such an endorsement. And it was done by a very junior embassy official. Such a low-key response!
Malaysian officials who were previously so dismissive of American official and public opinions are now suddenly eagerly lapping up any praise from America! I do not know who are being more hypocritical—the Americans or the Malaysians? Obviously to the Americans, flagrant abuses of basic human rights and due process are fine as long as the targets are presumed enemies of the West.
Criticisms of the ISA aside, there are legitimate security issues facing the country that must be addressed. Can this be done adequately without the ISA? Absolutely! The successful prosecution of the Al-Maunah group sans the ISA is one ready example. Granted the police and prosecution had to work hard to prove their case, and well they should.
Another argument favored by the Act’s apologists is that such laws are needed in a multiracial society to prevent those who would incite racial hatred. This is a valid concern, but it can be addressed using far less draconian measures. America has its “hate crime” laws where if a crime is motivated by racial hatred, it carries a substantially more severe penalty. Further, the victims of such crimes could sue their aggressors for civil damages and or violations of their civil rights, the latter carrying a much stiffer remedy. Similarly there could be “no bail” provision for such crimes. There are several viable options short of the drastic ISA.
Another defense of the ISA (and also the prohibition against public protests and rallies) is that Malaysians are fed up with unruly demonstrations and the resulting disruptions to traffic and businesses. Again here there could be provisions whereby those who plan such protests must carry adequate insurance in case of accidents or property damages. Such “event insurances” are common and mandatory in America. Having such insurance as a prerequisite would ensure that the organizers take extraordinary precautions to prevent their demonstrations from getting out of control. If they lose control of their followers they would have to foot a significantly higher premium the next time around.
A more problematic contention is this. The ISA has been a major issue in almost all general elections, with the opposition parties advocating its repeal and the ruling party (Barisan Nasional – BN) defending it. Yet BN keeps wining. But it would be a mistake to read much into this beyond saying that the issue does not resonate with the electorate.
In truth Malaysians do not support the ISA; they merely tolerate it. Electorates do not consider the ISA reason enough to boot the ruling party out.
One of the tragic consequences of the ISA is that its victims are not allowed to contact their families or attorneys. Their families are kept in the dark of where their loved ones are being detained and for how long. Nor are their charges and evidences specified. As has been amply demonstrated by Abdullah Badawi, the current minister in charge, such awesome powers are routinely delegated to minor officials.
Apart from its impact on the victims, the Act carries a far greater and deeper chilling effect on all Malaysians. Much like the barbwire fence would be a constant ugly reminder keeping the animals away from the edges for fear from being entangled, Malaysians are forced to behave extra cautiously. Citizens internalize self-censorship and keep to the narrow and safe. Any new initiative is stifled for fear of offending the authorities. New ideas are evaluated not on whether they will work, but how the authorities would perceive them. How many times have one heard officials say, “It’s not government policy!” And with that robotic response, everything is settled. Case closed! Everyone is scared of running afoul of those in power.
Next: Chilling Effects of Repressive Laws like ISA