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Suffering the ISA

WHEN Anne Munro-Kua’s husband Dr Kua Kia Soong was taken away under the Internal Security Act (ISA) in the dead of night in 1987, the emotion that gripped her most tightly was fear.

“Can you imagine the range of feelings you are left with? Dominant over all is fear, fear of what will happen to your loved one, and helplessness as you know not why or where he has been taken…

“Everything we are led to believe about our democratic and constitutional rights is undermined. We know whom to call when our house is being robbed; but when the police — the keepers of law — are the ones robbing you of your loved ones, whom do you call?”

This is her recollection of the trying times she underwent when Kua, a Chinese educationist and then DAP Member of Parliament (MP), was taken in under the government crackdown known as Operation Lalang. In the book 445 Days Under Operation Lalang: An Account of the 1987 ISA Detentions written by Kua, Munro-Kua details the night of the arrest and the subsequent tortured nights she and her two children suffered until he was released 445 days later.

The ISA, which allows for indefinite detention without trial, was gazetted in 1960 when the Malaysian government was emerging from the Emergency while there were still pockets of terrorist activities. The law was specifically meant to deal with terror suspects at a time when people were afraid to testify for fear of their lives.

Teresa Kok, who was arrested under the ISA in
September 2008 (Courtesy of Merdeka Review)
Since then, though, the Act has been amended numerous times to strengthen executive power. The amendment most damaging to citizens’ civil liberty was the one made in1989, which removed judicial review from ISA arrests. This meant that the government could arbitrarily apprehend and detain anyone without having to account for its actions.

With the recent high-profile arrests under the ISA of the five Hindraf leaders, followed by Sin Chew Daily journalist Tan Hoon Cheng, DAP MP for Seputeh Teresa Kok, and popular Malaysia Today blogger Raja Petra Kamarudin, the spotlight is yet again on the ISA. Since the Hindraf five were arrested in December 2007, public rallies have been held calling for the ISA to be repealed and for all 64 known detainees (as reported by Gerakan Mansuhkan ISA or GMI) to be released.

Even Barisan Nasional component party leaders, especially from within Gerakan and the MCA, have called for the Act to be reviewed, while former Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Zaid Ibrahim resigned in September 2008 to protest its use.

At the height of such public awareness about the unjust implementation of laws to silence dissenting voices in a democracy, most of the attention is usually focused on the detainee and his or her denial of rights. Public consciousness about the plight of family members is usually scant.

Psychological impact

Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) commissioner Datuk N Siva Subramaniam says family members are deeply affected psychologically. On its part, Suhakam will be organising a meeting with ISA detainees’ wives in the following weeks.

“Organising group meetings with family members is a great way to support them,” Siva tells The Nut Graph.

“The meeting would be a platform for family members of ISA detainees to share their experiences and help one another. It would be fruitful for them.”

The happy family of Mat Sah Mohd Satray and Norlaila Othman, before
the ISA snatched him away from them (Source:

Norlaila Othman has a story similar to Munro-Kua’s to tell. Her husband was arrested under the ISA in 2002.

She says 15 plainclothes Special Branch officers came to their house at midnight to pick up her husband, Mat Sah Mohd Satray, a Jemaah Islamiah member.

“They cuffed him as soon as he opened the door. They searched our house, stripped everything — even the ceiling — and took our personal belongings like family albums, Islamic books, everything.”

Norlaila said their then eight-year-old son cried in fear that whole night. For three weeks after, she and her son were in limbo, not knowing where they had taken Mat Sah or whether they would ever see him again.

“I was left with a phone number that didn’t work. Every time the phone rang, I prayed it was my husband,” Norlaila, who is today a GMI Family Support Group committee member, says in a phone interview.

She says for two years after her husband was taken away, their son kept a metal bar under his bed. When she asked him what the bar was for, he told her: “I don’t want them to take you away like they took Abah. I will kill them if they come for you.”

For the family of detained Hindraf leader V Ganapathy Rao, both his wife and their two children have been pining for his release since he was taken in in December 2007. Buvaneswary Balasubramaniam says one night, she saw their three-year-old daughter Janany speaking to Ganapathy Rao’s portrait, asking him to return home.

The cries of the children of ISA detainees. Does
anyone listen? (Source:

In the case of Munro-Kua, Norlaila and Buvaneswary, their marriages have remained intact despite being separated from their husbands. In some other instances, marriages have broken up.

Economic hardships

Apart from the psychological impact, families of ISA detainees also go through economic hardship.

Suhakam is cognisant of this. Siva says: “Help should be provided to family members from time to time. Some of the detainees have been away for more than six years. The impact is very great on family members, especially the poor.”

In its review of the ISA in 2003, Suhakam proposed to the government that the authorities look at providing assistance to the dependents of detainees.

But this proposal has yet to be taken up seriously. For example, Norlaila says that after seven years, Welfare Department officers only visited her once after she ambushed then Women, Family and Community Development Minister Datuk Seri Shahrizat Abdul Jalil about her plight.

“However, the officers asked me if I had a TV and refrigerator and whether I owned a car. When I said yes to all these questions, they told me I wasn’t eligible for assistance even though I had these things when my husband was around,” she remembers.

Norlaila says for the first several years after her husband was incarcerated, life was financially difficult for her and her son, especially since she wasn’t earning an income then. She had to resort to approaching her husband’s employer for assistance. Thankfully, the employer devised a scheme so that Norlaila was eligible for her husband’s “early pension”. Norlaila says her husband’s employer was also kind enough to say that if it were later possible, Mat Sah would be re-employed if he was released.

Norlaila, who is today a teacher, adds that she was also lucky because she only had one child to care for, and had the support of relatives and good Samaritans.

Buvaneswary, also a teacher, says she, too, has not received any government assistance since her husband was arrested. “Our household income has been halved since my husband’s arrest.”

Family support group

Scoffing at the idea of a government that would consider helping the family members of those it detains arbitrarily, Buvaneswary says the only assistance she has received has been from Hindraf, and the GMI’s Family Support Group.

Norlaila says there are 30 registered families in GMI’s Family Support Group. The wives of detainees do, among other things, handicraft work to sell. The income is split among the members.

She says some detainees who are holed up at the Kamunting detention centre also produce craft and woodwork for their families to sell. But supply of these craft is not guaranteed because the guards at Kamunting have been known to confiscate them.

Norlaila and Buvaneswary say they have also received donations from some concerned MPs and good Samaritans, which are shared among needy family members. But these donations are not sustainable forms of income.

Buvaneswary and her daughter at a recent Anti-ISA forum,
looking doubtful over the fate of her loved one
Norlaila says she is convinced there are more family members who need assistance. But, she thinks, they may be afraid to associate themselves with the Family Support Group for fear of repercussions.

Still, despite the trauma and stress of losing a loved one to the ISA, some family members have been able to gain strength from the experience. From being timid homemakers and small-time income earners, some wvies have become more vibrant, outspoken and independent. Some even transformed into intrepid human rights activists.

Says Norlaila: “I care not about what they are going to do to me… I will continue to educate and assist other unfortunate wives and fight against the injustice against our husbands.”

Related articles:

Zaid Ibrahim’s open letter to the PM
Protests continue against the ISA
Saying “no” to the ISA: The sequel
Let right be done
Saying “no” to the ISA

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2 Responses to “Suffering the ISA”

  1. BinaryTan says:

    ISA is a tool only to silence the opposition’s voice.

    It is like a dictator who does not want to hear anyone against him.

    As a supposedly modern country, it is sad to say, Malaysia is a disgrace for having the ISA, OSA, a flawed judiciary system, ACA etc.

  2. simon Khoo says:

    Dear Khairil,
    I was thinking the same thing. The families of the ISA detainees need help and support. Is there a “fund” organised for the families? If so, who is it managed by? Tell me how I can help; I live in Australia.

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