LEST we allow our new prime minister to get away with a slick public relations exercise, here are some cold hard statistics about previous prime ministers and the Internal Security Act (ISA).
In July 1981, two weeks into office as prime minister, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad released 21 ISA detainees. As he himself candidly admitted on 5 April 2009, he thought it would be good for him. It probably was for his public image then.
But what did Mahathir subsequently do during his 22 years in power? According to Suaram, under Mahathir’s administration, 1,500 people were arrested under the ISA. Most notable of these arrests were the 100-plus Malaysians who were arrested in 1987 under Operasi Lalang.
But Mahathir wasn’t the only one to start off a premiership on such a good footing. In November 2003, after almost a month of being prime minister, Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi released 15 detainees. Subsequently, however, under his administration between October 2003 and April 2009, there were 105 new arrests.
And so, Datuk Seri Najib Razak isn’t really doing anything extraordinary as Malaysia’s new and sixth prime minister. His release of 13 ISA detainees on 5 April follows a route Malaysians should now be familiar with.
The question, of course, is what will Najib do after this?
Three foreigners — one from India and two from Myanmar — were the first to be released from ISA detention on 5 April
and were taken away in an Immigration Department vehicle (Pic by Raj Kumar, courtesy of theSun)
Let’s be real
The ISA violates human rights. No matter what the rhetoric may be about national security and public order, no government should have the absolute power to detain someone without trial for an indefinite amount of time.
And while Najib has promised a review of the ISA, it has been made clear that abolishing it is not in his pack of cards. Worse, the new administration hasn’t even committed to a specific timeframe about when this review will be concluded. Instead, it has assured the public that it will take time.
This begs the question about the government’s sincerity in respecting civil liberties and putting people first. Proposals for amending and/or abolishing the ISA have, on countless occasions, been submitted to the government. Even if the government cannot trust human rights groups to have the nation’s best interests at heart, they can at least trust the Malaysian Human Rights Commission (Suhakam).
Syed Hamid Albar Since 2003, Suhakam has been proposing to the government that the ISA should be abolished. Indeed, then Home Minister Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar indicated on 8 April 2009 that Suhakam’s report may be used as a basis for the government’s review. Hence, since the government wouldn’t need to start from scratch, it should be able to commit to a timeframe of when it will complete its review of the ISA. This, in fact, would be in line with part of Najib’s slogan, “Performance Now“.
Najib has also said that his move to release the 13 detainees was to demonstrate a caring government that was not repressive. Let’s get real. To begin with, no “caring government” should detain people without trial. But the Malaysian government has, repeatedly, in clear abuse of human rights. And Najib was very much a part of both the Mahathir and Abdullah administrations when ISA detentions were executed. Unlike Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, who resigned in opposition to the ISA, Najib has through his years in government done nothing to oppose the detentions.
And yet the new premier is now asking us to view him as a leader with heart because he released 13 people. How about the remaining 27 detainees being held at the Kamunting detention centre? As it is, Najib has refused to comment about further releases. Surely his benevolence, if it were genuine, should extend to others who remain in detention, too?
Mmm, brownies Brownie points
No, Najib shouldn’t be given brownie points for releasing 13 ISA detainees who shouldn’t have been detained in the first place.
But brownie points are exactly what Najib expects, as evidenced by his statements surrounding his first act as prime minister. The subtext to Najib’s message to the rakyat is: “I’m a good guy. I released the 13 detainees.” It’s no different from what an ex-boyfriend of a former classmate of mine once said to her: “You’re lucky you’re in a relationship with me. I don’t beat you.”
Apparently, Malaysians should be thankful we have Najib as our new prime minister because he has released 13 ISA detainees and is looking at reviewing, instead of abolishing, the colonial relic from the days of Malaya’s Emergency.
But really, Najib should only be allowed to score brownie points if he didn’t make this about him. Those detainees, and the ones remaining at Kamunting, deserve to be released, not because Najib is competing with Santa Claus for popularity, but because it was wrong to have detained them in the first place.
Now, if only Najib could say that, and act fully in accordance with that principle, he would deserve the brownie points he seeks from the rakyat.
“Help, I’m slipping” (Pic by takatuka / sxc.hu)
What will Najib do in the months and years to come? There is no guarantee that he will not follow in the same footpaths as Mahathir and Abdullah by arresting and detaining others under the ISA.
For so long as the ISA is in place, Malaysians will have to live in the constant fear that anyone of us can be picked up by the government at a whim. That’s what happened on 12 Sept 2008 to Teresa Kok, Raja Petra Kamarudin and Tan Hoon Cheng. Indeed, our history bears testimony to the countless times the government has used the ISA to silence dissidents and maintain their grip on power in the name of “national security”.
All ISA detainees must be released. And the ISA itself abolished.
Not because Najib is a sweetheart of a prime minister, as he would also want us all to believe by walking about Kuala Lumpur and talking about a “vibrant, free and informed media“. But because it is the right thing to do if Najib’s “goodness” is for real. And until that happens, Malaysians should remain critical and vigilant of our new prime minister.
Jacqueline Ann Surin‘s former classmate broke up with the boyfriend who presented himself as being the best she could hope for because he didn’t abuse her. Jacqueline hopes the nation, like that classmate, will not settle for anything less than what we deserve in a democracy.