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The first public debate on the Internal Security Act (ISA) held greater significance for many in the audience, beyond the fact that this was an unprecedented open discussion of a subject that has caused much controversy all this while.

Among the 1,000 people who attended the event in Kuala Lumpur last night were government officials and leaders of civil society groups, most of whom have taken an opposing stance over the issues raised by enforcement of the security law.

The two-hour debate, entitled 'The Great Malaysian Debate - ISA: Yes or No', featured Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Nazri Abdul Aziz and parliamentary Opposition Leader Lim Kit Siang.

While there were varied reactions to the arguments presented, most of those interviewed agreed that such debates are healthy.

"It is a refreshing experience of freedom of speech and expression," said National Human Rights Society (Hakam) immediate past president Ramdas Tikamdas, who also complimented the crowd for being disciplined.

"It shows that the people are mature enough to discuss the ISA, (an issue that) is of public interest. The police should consider relaxing conditions to be imposed in future."

He was referring to the 11 conditions attached to the police permit for the debate, including prohibition of 'seditious' speech and a ban on audience participation.

No untoward incident

Dang Wangi OCPD Hadi Ho Abdullah, describing this as a successful event, said he appreciated the fact that the organisers - DAP Youth (Dapsy) - had complied with the conditions.

Asked if this would encourage the police to relax conditions for future debates, he would only say that this would be decided on a "case by case" basis.

About 100 uniformed and plainclothes police personnel were stationed in and around the venue - Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall - and tight security was imposed. No untoward incident was reported.

Some 50 Dapsy members helped to ensure that the event proceeded smoothly.

Aliza Jaffar, the wife of ISA detainee Saari Sungib, said the debate would have been an eye-opener for those in the audience who were unaware of the "cruelty" of the legislation, which allows for detention without trial.

She expressed hope that the debate would encourage the media to give wider and fair coverage on related issues.

Saari had been held under the ISA for two years together with five other reformasi activists, but was released last June. He was also present at the debate.

Newly-appointed commissioner of the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) Muhammad Shafee Abdullah echoed the view that such debate is healthy.

Since its inception four years ago, Suhakam has been vocal about the need to reform security legislation. It has recommended that the government should amend the act so that it is more ' humane ', but there has been no response to date.

'Big joke'

Asked what he thought of the discussion, Shafee said he was disappointed with the quality of both Nazri's and Lim's arguments.

"They could have done a lot more homework, given that there has been much debate about the ISA over the past 40 years. Both failed to present good facts," said the senior lawyer.

Others felt that the event was more like a political ceramah than a debate. Each speaker was given 45 minutes to present his arguments, after which Lim was allowed five minutes to reply to Nazri's points.

Lim's arguments touched on the failure of Parliament to debate the Suhakam reports, his two periods of detention under the ISA, and the need for freedom of information. At one juncture, he also brought in the Batang Kali massacre .

Nazri quoted reports by the New York-based Human Rights Watch and Suhakam for a point by point rebuttal of grouses against the ISA. He gave justifications for the legislation, in particular the provision for detention without trial.

Commented an activist: "Kit Siang could have presented a more organised, detailed and scathing speech on how people have been tortured under the ISA, but regrettably he didn't."

PAS leader Mahfuz Omar, a fiery orator himself, felt that Lim appeared more constrained throughout his presentation while Nazri, despite a weaker argument, had appealed better to the crowd.

Mahfuz disagreed with Nazri's contention that the rakyat has vicariously supported enforcement of the ISA, given that voters have returned the Barisan Nasional (BN) to power in every general election to date.

"Does this also mean that the rakyat supports corrupt leaders when they vote for BN?" he asked.

Human rights lawyer Latheefa Koya said Nazri has a misconception of democracy if he thinks that this involves an election every five years.

"This was a big Malaysian joke rather than a debate. I thank the minister for citing the international human rights reports, but I feel he has only managed to clarify why we have an even more urgent need to get rid of the ISA," she added.

Deputy Internal Security Minister Noh Omar said Nazri and Lim "only know how to talk theory", but did not elaborate.

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