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Using the ISA


Who is being detained under the Internal Security Act?
(Musa Hassan pic by Ridzuan Aziz | Wiki Commons)

IMAGINE this. What if Teoh Beng Hock had been taken into the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC)’s custody for questioning and nobody had known? And then imagine this. What if A Kugan‘s arrest and detention was also a secret that nobody knew about?


Funeral procession for Kugan, 28 Jan 2009
I wager it wouldn’t take too much to imagine that their deaths in custody would have gone undocumented, never to be revealed. And nobody would be any the wiser that they had died while in the custody of enforcement agencies. No inquest would have been held into why a witness should fall out of a window of the MACC’s building to his death. No police officer responsible for Kugan’s beatings and death would have been held accountable. No justice would have been done.

But this is exactly what the Malaysian government is asking us to accept when it refuses to reveal the identity of the 10 who were detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA) in January 2010 for alleged links to terrorism. Under the guise of national security and the sensitivity of ongoing investigations, Malaysians and the international community are being asked to trust the secrecy of a system that is highly prone to abuse and yet obviously unaccountable.


Musa Hassan (pic by Ridzuan
Aziz | Wiki Commons)
Evidence of violence

There is no doubt that ISA detainees are tortured. The stories of torture under detention without trial have been amply recorded, for example, in books by former ISA detainees such as Kua Kia Soong, and now Parti Keadilan Rakyat deputy president and senator Dr Syed Husin Ali.

And there is enough evidence, as we already know from Kugan’s death, that abuses and beatings do occur during incarceration in Malaysia. Indeed, by one account, Teoh’s death in custody was just one out of 1,805 tragedies that have happened in police lock-ups, prisons, and detention camps since 2003. This translates into 23 deaths every month, or three custodial deaths every four days.

As yet, no police officer has been found guilty of causing Kugan’s death a year ago. And since then, at least two other notable deaths in custody have occurred — R Gunasegaran in July 2009 in the Sentul police station and P Babu at the Jempol police station in late January 2010.

And so, when the Inspector-General of Police (IGP) and the Home Minister refuse to name those who have been taken under ISA detention or provide any other information, we really need to worry for the detainees and their safety. After all, if abuses and death are already clearly happening when a person’s arrest and detention are known, imagine what can happen when detentions are cloaked from public scrutiny.


Hishammuddin Hussein
By Home Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein‘s own admission, he would not have revealed a thing about the 10 who were arrested under the ISA in January if not for the media getting hold of the information. And for that, we would have to thank civil society and the tweet of human rights lawyer Edmund Bon.

Indeed, even before this, Hishammuddin himself declared that since taking over the home ministry, he has used the ISA to detain those he claims are involved in terrorism. “But no one knows this and I do not lose sleep over it as my action protects the people and the country,” he was quoted in mid-January in no less than the New Straits Times.

It is incredible that Hishammuddin finds it unproblematic to make such a public declaration. Clearly, the home minister believes at least two things. One, that the state has the right to deny a person his or her rights by detaining them without trial, and likely torturing them. And two, that the state need not be held accountable for doing so.

The terrorist threat

Thus far, we’ve heard not just Hishammuddin justify these arrests under the ISA. Even Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak has condoned the arrests and the withholding of information about who has been arrested and exactly why. Yes, this is the same prime minister who, upon first coming into office in April 2009, assured the rakyat that his administration would review the ISA because it was a “caring government“.

And yet, the ISA hasn’t just been used against 10 people for unknown and unproven crimes. Hishammuddin cited the ISA as one course of action the government would take against those who were responsible for the attacks on houses of worship.

Not only that, IGP Tan Sri Musa Hassan has promised that more people would be nabbed under the ISA following the arrest of the 10.


Najib Razak
The justification for using the ISA? That these individuals are threats to national security. That they are linked to terrorist organisations. That the government has solid intelligence about their crimes or yet-to-be-committed crimes. That Malaysia “will not be used as a terrorist transit point”.

But if the government really had evidence, where it is? Why should the government feel that it cannot provide the evidence in a court of law unless the evidence itself will not stand up to scrutiny?

Surely, denying somebody’s right to a free trial and subjecting the person to indefinite detention, without any crime having been proven, and with torture most likely being part of the experience, is grave and despicable. And yet, the Malaysian government is asking all of us to accept that it has a right to do this. And that its minister will not lose any sleep over it because he is somehow “protecting the nation”.

But really, one has to ask, just what is the government hiding that it needs to keep secret who it has detained without trial? And what is it hiding that it will not or cannot provide evidence of criminal wrongdoing in an open court?

Why should we trust the state, especially one that has consistently shown its capacity for violence against individuals, and its inability to be accountable and just? Which leads me to ask the following questions: Who is being tortured in detention now, whether under the ISA or otherwise? Would it be so violent that yet another death would be inevitable? And would we ever know about it if we didn’t even know the person was detained to begin with?

Imagine this. If we trust the government about their allegations of unproven acts of terrorism, imagine just how much power we accord the state to continue denying people their human rights. Imagine the license we provide for abuses and deaths in detention to persist, all in the name of national security. And then imagine, what else the state could do to you or me. favicon


Jacqueline Ann Surin believes that by reporting as proven fact the state’s allegations of terrorist activities, the media perpetuate the notion that the government can and must be trusted. She wishes the media would be more rigorous in defending citizen’s rights, instead of reporting so uncritically when power is being abused.

Read previous Shape of a Pocket columns

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8 Responses to “Using the ISA”

  1. siew eng says:

    Tamparan hebat all round. Thank you for supplying the vicarious slaps.

  2. Just imagine voting them back into office again at the next GE. I shudder to think of another term under this government.

    If you love your country, please do NOT vote for these tongue-twisting politicians. Nothing good can ever come from keeping them in power.

  3. starlight says:

    Najib’s 1Malaysia is doomed. Cakap tak serupa bikin. He has two face – one to portray concern and care for the public, (like going to Sri Lanka and then turn up at the Batu Cave Thaipusam) and the other, complete opposite, cannot keep that commitment when faced with religious issues (Allah) and race.

    He is really doing wayang. Never had I trusted this politician even before he become the prime minister. As for the home minister, my impression is his post is one of the most undeserving posts given the fact that he never speaks sense. Many bodoh statements.

    As for Musa Hassan I wonder who is responsible for his promotion to IGP given [how he was implicated] during [investigations into Anwar Ibrahim's black eye]. No integrity, let alone intelligence of management. Sorry, I rant too much. But it’s true, if all these people are replaced with more intelligent [people] merit and caliber, many of the custodial deaths could be prevented.

  4. M.K. says:

    Another excellent article from you! While you keep reporting as it should be, we the ordinary folks worry about your well-being and other journalists like you. The best we can do is to pray for all of you!

    How I wish we could give a dose of their own medicine to those, past and present, who have abused their powers under the guise of “national security”. Then they will know what ISA is.

  5. wayang says:

    Good show put up by these politicians. By the way, if someone is called a politician, surely they are bound to put up a show, wayang or drama – whatever you want to name it. That’s the secret of becoming a politician.

  6. perception says:

    Politics is a game of perception…it has been so since ages [ago]…perhaps the author can’t deal with reality…get a life.

  7. farnie says:

    Transparency is not in their dictionary & they don’t understand the meaning of human rights.

  8. U-En Ng says:

    We need regrettably little imagination to see how far state violence is allowed to penetrate into our lives: statute law provides for it explicitly and without limitation; and with pitifully few exceptions the courts have declined to comment on their constitutionality.

    What we are asked to support, instead, is the democratic paradox. If the will of the majority insists on the subversion of its own rights and freedoms through legitimate means, how can effective protest take place without at some point challenging the very foundations of of political legitimacy?

    If the will of the people demands that the autocrat be empowered, how exactly do we deny them that right without becoming autocrats ourselves?


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