Malaysiakini Letter

1987 - The spectre that still haunts Malaysia and Singapore

Kua Kia Soong  |  Published:  |  Modified:

LETTER | In 1987, a spectre loomed over Malaysia and Singapore — the spectre of the Internal Security Act (ISA). Unbeknown to many activists including myself, the powers-that-be of these old British colonies had entered into an unholy alliance to unleash their Insidious Suppression Apparatus to suit their own agendas.

In May 1987, Operation Spectrum made us Malaysians gasp in disbelief that a tough-talking People's Action Party (PAP) could feel so insecure against a bunch of young activists like our friends across the causeway. They were hardly the type that Lee Kuan Yew needed knuckle-dusters against in a dark alley. 

And yet, from the testimonies in this book, the Singapore State used the same methods we were to experience in Malaysia, against anyone who did not kowtow to their brand of mushy mellow first worldly "Singaporism".

Notwithstanding, as in our student days in the UK, we concerned Malaysians set about organising a campaign for the release of the Spectrum detainees in Singapore, calling solidarity meetings, press conferences, writing letters of support, worldwide urgent appeals.

I understand the Catholic Diocese in Kuala Lumpur was just as alarmed as their counterpart in Singapore and Archbishop Soter was most concerned about the Singapore government’s narrative of the events implicating activists of the Catholic Church there.

Little did we realise that in a matter of months, some of us (including the Archbishop’s own secretary Brother Anthony Rogers) would fall victim to a similar orchestrated operation using the dreaded Internal Security Act. 

Convenient for Mahathir’s Agenda

Political historians know that the ISA has been used all along as a convenient yet insidious suppression apparatus of the Alliance and then the Barisan Nasional (BN) government. 

From my experience as an ISA detainee who underwent harrowing long sessions with the Special Branch, it was clear that our detention under Operation Lalang was purely punitive and was intended as a deterrent to further involvement in social and political activism. It could not have been preventive and I could not have been “rehabilitated” after 445 days of detention for the simple reason that I have spoken up and written more than I did thirty years ago.

Events leading up to the mass arrests of more than 100 Malaysians under the ISA in October 1987 were definitely far from the norm, but one fact is certain - the forty who were subsequently detained at Kamunting were not the culprits who had contributed to the political tension at the time.

The underlying factor which had determined the uncertainty in Malaysian politics ever since 1986 was the power struggle within the ruling United Malays National Organisation (Umno). 

This relentless power struggle was inevitable considering the size of the spoils of the New Economic Policy at stake. The irreconcilable differences between Team A led by Dr Mahathir and Team B, which was led by Tengku Razaleigh were the destabilising factor which dominated the ruling BN coalition. This in turn set in motion other destructive forces within the coalition's member parties.

And as communalism is the stock-in-trade of the BN communal partners in any precarious situation, racial politics became the order of the day. Not surprisingly, the factions in Umno began to beat their breasts about Malay dominance while the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) played out its own orchestrated role as the champion of the Chinese. 

It was in this communalist climate that the usual “sensitive issues” were bandied about; raising such issues as non-qualified senior assistants being sent to Chinese-medium schools. If one studies the daily papers in the period before 27 October 1987, the characteristic racial exchanges between Umno and MCA can be clearly discerned. The Amnesty International Report confirms this;

“However, informed observers argued that those arrested had done little or nothing to provoke racial or religious tension and that on a number of critical issues government ministers and members of the ruling National Front coalition had played up and aggravated the perennial political and communal tensions that underlie Malaysian society for purposes of their own”.

Storm clouds over Malaysian politics began to gather from the Umno general assembly in April 1987, when the split down the middle in Umno caught the imagination of everyone. Mahathir had been re-elected by the skin of his teeth. 

What followed through the subsequent months was to add to the clouds hanging over Umno - the sacking of the Team B ministers from the Cabinet, Team B members going to court to seek rulings that the outcome of the April 1987 party elections be declared null and void and Umno being subsequently declared “illegal” by the court.

What is characteristic of Malaysian politics is that when the dominant party Umno has internal problems, these problems are quickly externalised. Needless controversies then seem to break out over various government directives. 

In the period we are looking at, such controversies included one regarding the recitation of a pledge in Malacca schools in May 1987 which the non-Malays regarded as having Islamic connotations and unacceptable to their beliefs.

In July, the “electives” issue erupted over University of Malaya's decision to scrap elective courses taught in English, Chinese and Tamil in their respective language departments. Meanwhile, within the Islamic quarter, there emerged a hue and cry over the Christianisation of Malays by Christian evangelists.

Then in October, the Education Ministry decided to appoint (linguistically) non-qualified senior officials to Chinese-medium primary schools. This was met with outrage by the Chinese community who did not want the character and standards in these schools to be altered irreparably. Mass meetings were called in various parts of the country calling upon the parties to resolve the issue. It must be noted that these meetings were orderly and there were no complaints from the police who had actually sanctioned the meetings.

In mid-October, Umno Youth staged a rally at the Jalan Raja Muda Stadium in Kuala Lumpur. At this rally, several leading Umno politicians including the then current prime minister made racially provocative statements. Banners bearing flagrantly racist and seditious slogans such as “Bathe this (Kris) in Chinese blood” and (See the Government's White Paper) the like were displayed.

Were the police powerless in that situation? The limits to the freedom of expression must surely lie in not only where it trespasses upon racial sensitivities but also where the police feel confident of keeping law and order.

In this particular incident, the flaunting of racist and seditious banners and speeches clearly showed that the police had no control or that they were compliant. And if they could not manage a few thousand people, how could they even contemplate allowing the proposed Umno anniversary rally of some 500,000 in the build-up to Operation Lalang? But the police did not disallow the massive rally plans outright, and the racial tension was left to rise.

This was the prevailing climate just before Operation Lalang was unleashed on Oct 27, 1987. And in the ensuing “white terror” that followed the ISA arrests, Mahathir began his assault on the judiciary by sacking then Lord President Salleh Abas and three other Supreme Court judges. The verdict in the Team B challenge in the court was thus a foregone conclusion.

Operation Lalang – The spectrum of political detainees

Putting together a whole mixed bag of dissidents and opposition leaders in Kamunting Detention Camp during Operation Lalang proved to be BN's undoing. The hitherto dissociated leaders now shared daily detention life and thus got to know each other well.

Their subsequent alliance bore fruit as demonstrated in the March 8, 2008 political tsunami.

My account "445 Days Under Operation Lalang" published in the same year of my release in 1989 provides an insight into the psyche of the detainee as well as that of his tormentors, both during the sixty days of solitary confinement and under the two-year detention order at Kamunting detention camp. This drama is framed against the political crisis in the country between 1987 and 1989 and it set a trend for other accounts of ISA detentions.

I was determined to publish this experience of Operation Lalang on the second anniversary in 1989 because I believed such knowledge of the ISA experience is invaluable for the prospective detainee, his/her family and those concerned for human rights as well as the collective conscience of the nation. As my old friend, the late K.Das so cheekily put it;

“This classic account can be read as a survival handbook for those who might fall victim to Malaysia’s dreaded Internal Security Act… Or it can be used as an invaluable tourist guide to Malaysia’s well-known Kamunting Detention Camp in any ‘Visit Malaysia Year”

After the ISA detention experience, I had lost all fear of the dreaded ISA that Malaysians in general harbour. I was also justifiably incensed that Mahathir had stolen 445 days of my life, robbed me of valuable time I could have spent with my family and friends.

Being an incurable chronicler who writes about practically every experience I undergo so that I can get on with my life, I made good my commitment to publish my ISA story on the second anniversary of Operation Lalang.

The Government White Paper on Operation Lalang tried to paint a picture that we were dangerous subversives. They know very well precisely how deadly an academic advocating harmony based on need and not on race can be! (See "The October Affair – The Why? Papers" published by Suaram, 1989 for a wide range of reactions to the "White Paper: Towards Preserving National Security").

I Say Abolish (ISA)

The whole notion of ISA detention being “rehabilitation” of the detainee is a complete fantasy. You either come out of Kamunting Detention Camp broken or you come out more together, more determined to put an end to injustice and exploitation.

When so many cases of torture of ISA detainees by the police have been exposed and the latter still gets away with impunity, we can say the ISA is a licence to torture. Without doubt, the ISA has been the most loathed law in Malaysia since Independence. 

I say abolish the ISA simply because detention without trial diminishes the rights of all citizens by giving the state powers that cannot be reviewed by the courts and that corrupt the standards and principles central to the administration of justice.

It is perhaps the biggest scandal of post-Independent Malaysia and Singapore that one of the most draconian pieces of legislation in the world was used for nearly fifty years during peacetime. 

In fact, it continues to be used in Singapore despite the fact that the government there had said that they would do away with the ISA whenever Malaysia decides to do that. 

Well, Malaysia has now officially dispensed with the ISA, although it has ensured the enactment of other legislation that continues to allow detention without trial, namely the Security Offences Act (SOSMA), the Prevention of Crime Act (POCA), the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), alongside the Dangerous Drugs Act (DDA)*.

It is ironic that the “butcher” of the Emergency, Gerald Templar had suggested the Emergency regulations be annually renewable or they should lapse automatically. 

Even during the worst days of Apartheid, Nelson Mandela was allowed due process of the law; there was judicial review in South Africa all that time. Also, during the troubles in Northern Ireland in the seventies, the British Government’s detention of IRA suspects for seven days was ruled unlawful by the European Court of Human Rights.

Here in Malaysia, we had to endure an ISA that allowed sixty days of solitary confinement when a detainee is at the mercy of the Special Branch, followed by a renewable two-year detention order. My cellmate at Kamunting in 1987, Loh Ming Liang had been detained for 16 years! Not to be outdone, the kiasu Singapore regime detained Chia Thye Poh for 26 years with another 6 years on restrictions.

It speaks volumes that Noordin Mat Top, the Malaysian who was alleged to have been responsible for the Bali bombing and who was killed recently by the Indonesian authorities had never been arrested under the ISA. At the same time, out of more than 10,000 Malaysians who had been detained under the ISA since 1960, hardly any had been subsequently charged in an open court of law for terrorism.

Fear not the thieves who stole our freedom

I am blessed to be able to contribute to this collection of writings by the victims of Operation Spectrum and their loved ones. I wish you strength to carry on the struggle for truth, social justice and democracy for as the Lord Mayor of Cork, Terence McSweeney reminded us in 1920;

“It is not those who can inflict the most
but those that can suffer the most
who will conquer…
Those whose faith is strong
Will endure to the end in triumph.”

Or as the late K Das concluded in his foreword to my 1989 title:

“Above all, Soong has a message: Don’t be terrified by the prospect of being detained under the ISA. After all, in a sense we are already all under detention. Detention without trial is, without doubt a horrible nuisance, yes, but your honour and self-respect will remain unblemished by the duly authorised rapists who are in the business of running our Government today…

“If we are all grateful to these men and women who paid a heavy price for speaking out for us, we must send out a message to the jagas who guard the detention camps and their masters who perch on various hills around the city: Do your worst, and we will do our best.

“But we must not spend our days and nights living in silent fear of the thieves who stole Soong’s freedom…”

-K Das, former bureau chief of the Far Eastern Economic Review, Oct 1989

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

Share this story


Welcome back,

Your subscription expires on

Your subscription will expire soon, kindly renew before

Your subscription is expired
  Click here to renew

You are not subscribed to any subscription package
  Click here to subscribe now

Any questions?
  Email: [email protected]
  Call: +603-777-00000