COMMENT The spurious manner in which the Najib Abdul Razak government has detained Bersih chairperson Maria Chin Abdullah without trial under the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012 (Sosma) highlights a reality that Malaysians should be aware of - any national “visions of grandeur” by the national leaders while detention without trial exists are purely delusional.
Just as Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s ‘Vision 2020’ was bound to fail while he clung on to the Internal Security Act (ISA), the prime minister’s ‘Transformation 2050’ will meet a similar fate as long as he clings to the need for detention without trial to shut up his critics. The simple reality is that a developed (‘transformed’) nation upholds a culture of the rule of law, while banana republics rely on detention without trial to silence detractors to their regimes.
Despite the abolition of the ISA, detention without trial still exists in the form of Sosma, Prevention of Terrorism Act 2015 (Pota) and Prevention of Crime Act 1959 (Poca), with security provisions that are broad and vague and that will result in continuation of detention without charge and denial of basic rights. Also, the BN government has shown that its capacity for vindictive prosecution is undiminished.
When the ISA was enacted in 1960, the government justified it by saying it would only be used against the “communists”. Liberals therefore concluded that they would not be affected. However, the mass detentions, such as those of Operation Lalang, 1987 demonstrated that no-one was exempt from the clutches of the ISA. The new ‘anti-terrorism’ laws such as Sosma have a familiar sense of deja vu about them.
The detention of Maria is yet another example that these detention without trial laws will not only be used against alleged terrorists but also against ‘inconvenient truth-tellers’.
Draconian laws have failed to nail alleged terrorists
It is an embarrassing record of the BN government and the security forces that since 1960, more than 10,000 Malaysians had been incarcerated under the ISA, though as far as we know, not one of these were exposed as ‘international terrorists’.
On the other hand, there have been at least four Malaysians arrested (two in Syria) or killed abroad (in Indonesia) for alleged involvement in international terrorism but none of them (as far as we know) had ever been detained under the ISA for being threats to national security. That says a lot about the government’s resolve to fight terrorism!
But for all the government’s alacrity in arresting and detaining alleged ‘security threats’ such as Maria, it has been completely hopeless against local ‘terrorists’ who pollute our precious water sources - the culprits who dumped toxic solvents into our water sources and posing a serious threat to our health. Has anyone been arrested and charged for these criminal acts? Who gave licences to factories which are situated so precariously close to our precious water sources?
Has anyone been arrested and charged for such negligence and/or corruption? It is clear we are not going to attain ‘Transformation 2050' or simply enjoy a safe and healthy existence while the police and enforcement agencies do not know their priorities.
BN’s vindictiveness still evident
The ISA was a convenient weapon for the Alliance/ BN government to deal with its political opponents. This was seen at its most blatant form when practically the whole Labour Party leadership was detained under the ISA just before the fateful 1969 general elections.
The shock effect of Operation Lalang in 1987 was Dr Mahathir’s attempt to create a climate of fear which set the scene for the timely assault on the Judiciary when it was about to decide on the Umno Team B challenge in the courts. The police and Special Branch were compromised in this Team A scheme to fix critics of the government.
Operation Lalang bore the mark of Dr Mahathir’s autocracy and vindictiveness - the rule of law could be flouted in such a cynical way that all his critics and dissidents across the Malaysian political spectrum were hauled in that dragnet. It was payback time for me for writing critical articles and books during the false spring of the 1980s. It was the same for the other detainees who had expressed dissident views.
Above all, it exposed the BN’s capacity for vindictiveness in all its nakedness - there was no regard for the rule of law, democracy and human rights. The detention without trial of Maria shows that this proclivity for vindictiveness is the hallmark of banana republics, not the expected behaviour of a progressive democratic society.
No sign of remorse by BN or Dr Mahathir
If the BN government expects congratulations for repealing the ISA, then that is an admission that the ISA was a draconian and bad law. However, up to now, we haven’t heard any sign of remorse from the BN government for taking away the precious freedom of more than 10,000 Malaysians since 1960.
And nearly 30 years after Operation Lalang was unleashed by then-prime minister Dr Mahathir, he has not found any ounce of remorse in his body to apologise to the 106 Malaysians whose freedom he stole.
And that, after all, is what sets him and the present prime minister far apart from statesmen such as Nelson Mandela who demonstrated a complete absence of vindictiveness in his dealings with his political opponents and honoured the rule of law and democracy.
Thus, nearly 60 years after independence, we do not seem to have progressed very far beyond banana republicanism. We are not impressed by political slogans of ‘Transformation This and Transformation That’. Real reform must involve among other things, the total abolition of detention without trial; the independence of the judiciary, civil service and the police force; democracy and the primacy of the rule of law, NOT rule by law.
If the government is serious about real transformation, it can start by giving Maria Chin her precious freedom and dismantling the entire detention without trial industry.
DR KUA KIA SOONG is Suaram adviser.