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Why Malaysia needs the ISA

Corrected on 10 Dec 2008 at 10.00am

Police negotiating with protester wearing “Mansuhkan ISA” headband outside Masjid Negara, 13 Sept 2008
(pic by Lainie Yeoh)

NO, your eyes do not fool you. Nor have I been visited by Special Branch officers and “turned over”.

I was at the Petaling Jaya Civic Centre car park Sunday night, 7 Dec 2008, attending the weekly anti-Internal Security Act (ISA) gathering. A passionate speaker lamented that there were so few Malaysians there because they were afraid of the ISA. He was also disappointed that corrupt governments can be overthrown once and again by demonstrating crowds in Bangkok, but not in Kuala Lumpur.

The gentleman could not be more wrong if he thought the causality works only in one direction — that the ISA causes people to shun demonstrations. It actually works both ways — the ISA also exists because of some people’s fear of demonstrations and all other forms of political expression.

Also, one could not be more wrong to think that the ISA is merely an evil tool of the Barisan Nasional (BN) to control citizens. It is not a complete falsehood when BN politicians claim that the people want the ISA since they support a ruling coalition that desires the ISA.

The ISA is here because it has served a purpose to a sizeable segment, probably the majority, of Malaysians. What purpose is that? Having a strong government.

(Corrected) Without the ISA and all other draconian laws, a government cannot be strong in an autonomous sense — it can only persuade and not coerce people to support it.

But why would people want a strong government? Because we are fundamentally a Hobbesian nation.

Thomas Hobbes
Thomas Hobbes (source:
Hobbesian nation

Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century conservative British philosopher, believed that human beings living in the state of nature were living in a state of war, their lives short and brutish. Incidentally, it was Hobbes who invented the concept of the social contract.

Driven by our selfish desire to compete for resources, we would pose threats to each other in the absence of government. Therefore, it is justifiable for a government to be absolute and disregard consent because the people cannot be trusted.

Push the Hobbesian logic to the extreme, and you will believe that even a bad government is better than no government. If only Hobbes was Asian, he would assure us that the government is always benevolent.

Most of us are Hobbesian because we do not believe that a multi-ethnic society can remain peaceful if the citizens are free. We are insecure with our differences.

Some of us wish for the differences to be eliminated through assimilation, with everyone professing one faith, speaking one language, observing one custom, or inter-marrying for common posterity.

And there are bound to be some among us who feel hurt when a “sensitive issue” is raised. The issue could be the constitutional “special position of Malays and natives of any of the states of Sabah and Sarawak”. Or it could be the extra-constitutional issues of bumiputeraism, Islam, the Malay language, the Malay rulers, or Chinese and Tamil schools.

And feeling hurt gives us a strong reason to ask others to shut up. So, we wave the keris, stage demonstrations, point fingers at other’s noses, tear people’s pictures up or even threaten to burn down buildings. The message is simple — stop this or you will incite ethnic riots.

Preventing ethnic riots 101

How do you prevent an ethnic riot? The government’s answer is simple — crack down with the ISA.

In other words, the ISA and the authoritarian state that it protects is the lesser evil compared to looting and irrational mass killings. And since the ISA is here, everyone expects the state to use it against others who hurt their feelings. For many, the ISA is actually legitimate insofar as it is impartially used.

That is the reason why a government defending the ISA has been supported by more than half of the Malaysian electorate. It’s like an insurance premium paid to hedge the risk of a disaster.

Protesters at anti-ISA candlelight vigil, 27 Sept 2008

But then, why have there been continuing anti-ISA gatherings that attract ordinary people, rather than civil society activists and opposition members, after 8 March, with the date a constant reference point?

A simple explanation is that there have been no post-election riots. It is obvious that for some Malaysians, the risk of being an ISA victim is a premium unnecessarily paid to hedge against a fake hazard.

But have we really outgrown our obsession with a strong government? I am afraid not.

The need for a strong government can only be gone when we believe we can deal with our differences without resorting to violence, whether by private citizens (riots) or the state (political crackdowns).

It will happen only when we believe we can trust our rationality. If we are right, we will win the debate; if we are wrong, then it is still beneficial for us to be proven wrong.

Are Malaysians willing to engage in rational debate when it comes to issues of religion, the labelling of natives and immigrants, or the future of multiculturalism?

No, more often than not, we respond with our emotions. “We are hurt, so you must shut up and apologise!  You refuse to do so? We will take matters into our own hands or lodge a police report against you.”

In this sense, the ISA is more than “detention without trial”. It is one of the many tools — alongside the Sedition Act, the Printing Presses and Publications Act and other draconian laws — available to a Hobbesian state to save us from killing each other.


The antithesis or antidote of the “unjust” ISA is therefore not “justice”, for justice in the minimal sense could mean a wrong universally and impartially applied.

Remember how many Malaysians condemned the arrest of journalist Tan Hoon Cheng? “How could the government arrest the messenger when the culprit is left scot-free?” The implied message was, it would have been less unjust if Datuk Ahmad Ismail were arrested together with Tan. But if Ahmad alone were arrested, how many would protest against the ISA?

The ISA serves our subconscious need for a strong government, like kids who turn to parents to punish their siblings to win a fight. To eliminate the ISA, you cannot just change the law. You must eliminate such deeply-rooted psychological needs.

We need to be comfortable with freedom. Right now, there is a fear of the “other’s” freedom to think, say and do as they please. “We” perceive this as different from what “we” think, say and do. Thus, “we” perceive “their” freedom as threatening “our” world. This chain of reasoning, triggered by fear, is what created the ISA in the first place.

Blaming the BN for the ISA is easy, but such self-righteousness will blind us from acknowledging our own evil taste for authoritarianism. It does not get us closer to freedom, which is a combination of confidence to live our lives as we please and humility not to ask others to do the same. TNG

A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, Wong Chin Huat uses the Federal Constitution as his “bible” to fend off the increasingly intolerable evil called “state”.

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19 Responses to “Why Malaysia needs the ISA”

  1. Tiara says:

    <i>Most of us are Hobbesian because we do not believe that a multi-ethnic society can remain peaceful if the citizens are free. We are insecure with our differences.

    Some of us wish for the differences to be eliminated through assimilation, with everyone professing one faith, speaking one language, observing one custom, or inter-marrying for common posterity.</i>

    It is because of this that I do not feel comfortable going back to Malaysia. If the Malaysian people want to be Hobbesian, that’s their problem. I want no part of it, no part of a country that refuses to accept diversity.

  2. Dan says:

    I see the point of this article, but it seems the last paragraph hits the nail on the head. Fact is the ISA is not used benignly, as you argue, to prevent ethnic riots. If it was, Datuk Ahmad Ismail may have been arrested and you are right – people might not protest against the ISA. It is precisely because it is used as a political tool by the BN, and by extension, to secure the special position of the Malays, that there is opposition to it.

    By analogy, no one is against God/Allah being all powerful because we know God is all loving at the same time. Governments tend to not be all loving, so there should be a limit to their power.

    I think your analysis of Hobbes is shallow and would benefit from a comparison with Rousseau’s ideas of the social contract and “the general will”.

    Regards, Dan 🙂

  3. As a person who’s pro-ISA, this was a surprise for me.

    But firstly, we need to face facts. The ISA is not being used fairly.

    Secondly, the abuse of the ISA, as Tun Dr Ismail once stated, should be highlighted by the media and the people.

    In the case of our country in its current situation, the people are speaking out, but the press are still muzzled due to the Printing Presses and Publications Act.

    It also doesn’t help that newspapers have political associations which pressure them to write propaganda pieces.

  4. shinliang says:

    Point noted. All laws have their purpose. I agree that the (violent) protests like the one in Bangkok is something Malaysia can do without and that the ISA may be required in order for Malaysia to have a strong government. But even if we have a strong government, we may still need the ISA if we are, for example, under constant threat from terrorists.

    But to defend a law simply because it has a purpose is a blanket argument that isn’t enough to justify the use of the ISA. Whether a law should be in place should also be evaluated on how the law is interpreted and implemented.

    The problem with the ISA in Malaysia is that the interpretation of “threat to the country” is too subjective and wholly in the hands of those in power. This makes it too susceptible to abuse.

    All laws that are susceptible to abuse must either be abolished or revised. But the revision of ISA is not easy because striking a balance between apprehending someone without trial and apprehending after a full trial is not an easy business. The latter is obviously more “humane” but risky if we are dealing with a national threat that requires immediate action. The former is also unacceptable because it gives those in power full discretionary powers to apprehend someone, indefinitely.

    The purpose of the ISA is to avert immediate risks that would have been otherwise impossible if it had to go through the normal, lengthy trials in our courts. So, I do not see the need for the ISA to be repeatedly invoked to keep someone in detention for more than two years. After two years, he/she should be brought to court for trial, or if still no evidence can be found, he/she should be released. After all, all the risks should have been averted by then.

  5. Eric says:

    I disagree with Hafidz Baharom and other pro-ISA commenters. If Ahmad Ismail is ISA-ed, I am sure Chin Huat, the few of us and myself would still come out every Sunday. For God’s sake, we have been enduring rain and trigger-happy FRU charges when many of the ISA victims are allegedly JI terrorists. It simply does not matter who is under ISA, racists, terrorists, political dissenters or innocent people. This act is a monster, here and now, in the US in Guantanamo, anywhere, except perhaps under (real) “Emergency” circumstances.

    Who says when the ISA is used fairly, you Hafidz Baharom, Jesus, Allah, Buddha, Shiva? Based on what credentials? No one human can, it is as simple as that.
    If Ahmad Ismail, RPK or JI activists are guilty of whatever, then go and charge them under the immense repressive arsenal available to Malaysia’s police state.

  6. Eric,

    I said “Let’s face facts, the ISA is NOT being used fairly.”

    Don’t jump the gun.

  7. Justitia says:

    You’re so right when you say that people are not comfortable with freedom. For whatever ills that we may lay at Pak Lah’s door, we have to acknowledge that he has opened up more space for civil society to be more vocal and visible. I reckon we’re like birds in a cage where the door is just opened. We are pretty sure we want to fly out, but that big world out there? What will it hold for us?

  8. Zedeck says:

    Hello Hafidz, Eric, et al:

    Whether or not the Internal Security Act is “used fairly” is a relevant point, true. I am curious as to the commenters’ opinions on what constitutes fair use for the ISA — an Act that, by definition, allows the state to bypass normal judicial processes.

  9. Chironjit says:

    How true, your article. I’ve always thought of it as a necessary evil at its worst, and it is. Even democratic western countries are now jumping on the bandwagon, contrary to their scathing comments not too long back.

    Unfortunately, there’s always a flaw to even the best intentioned efforts. In this case, as your readers have pointed out, it is being abused by the ruling party to silence opposition. There is also bias in the meting out of such punishments as several of our BN politicians are ‘prone’ to making ‘racially disruptive’ comments but have barely received slaps on the wrists.

    So yes, while it’s still necessary, it cannot exist when it’s being abused so blatantly.

  10. First and foremost, the law itself must be amended to state just what exactly is a threat to internal security. In my case, I look more towards physical threats, defined mostly by terror plots both national and international.

    With this is mind, the ISA should be used to counter terrorist activities based on evidence and allegations not only provided by the Malaysian Special Branch, but also by the global network in the war on terror (CIA, Interpol, Mossad, etc.)

    Once such an arrest is made under the ISA, we should then amend the law to state a duration for the police to gather evidence from their global counterparts. While British law states 14 days as a limit, our Malaysian version does not.

    I think 14 days with an optional extension of another 14 by a judge should be sufficient. After 28 days and if no evidence (or lack of it) is presented to the courts, it should be safe to let them out.

    The question that comes to my mind is simple: Should the authority to detain someone be given to the ISA or through the judiciary?

    I’d suggest the latter for more transparency.

  11. hibou says:

    It is quite amusing to note that a Muslim majority government can come out in support of and justify the use of the ISA. Why does a self-proclaimed Muslim country compare itself to western thinkers/countries to justify its actions, when their Holy Book/hadiths have already explicitly given them the answer – detention without trial is forbidden.

    Seems like the practise of ISA, like yoga (it would seem), is leading astray the Muslim leaders of this country.

  12. Oliver says:

    Interesting. It’s hard to find anything in mainstream or non-mainstream media that goes beyond the pro vs anti-government divide. A good example of unbiased opinion.

    The point on the Ahmad Said double-standard was very good. I had noticed how many who claimed to be against the ISA came out to say Ahmad should have been arrested under it, in clear violation of their own so-called principles.

  13. Hibou,

    Name me one country that follows the Islamic laws according to the holy book and hadith, and I’ll give you the gold at the end of the rainbow.

  14. Kamal says:

    I feel the writer gets confused between wanting or even demanding responsible governance with a strong government. Hobbes of course lived in a very different era. And his ideas of governance reflected a lot the distinctions in his society. But you are right, not enough people don’t protest against the ISA but I would say that has to do more with a tradition of accommodating authority out of fear (we learnt that from our colonial experiences). If we listen carefully to the expressions made both in public and private, it is hard to disagree that we have truly come to fear our own state. Is the state expressing Hobbesian values? Probably, and in the true nature of Hobbes’s world.

  15. hibou says:


    Exactly my point, and that’s why I say it’s amusing. When it suits their purpose, they claim we are an Islamic state. To justify the ISA we cling on to a secular constitution citing copious examples/wisdom from the west.

    Thank you for pointing out that there is no such thing as a true Islamic state, at least not one that is capable of seriously following the basic tenets of Islam in the modern times. I’ve always suspected that.

  16. Eric says:

    Ok Hafidz, I jump the gun again. Zedeck, the ISA CANNOT be used fairly. Detention without trial is a perfect example of unfairness. There is NO good use of the ISA whatsoever. Even if it is to arrest Hitler or Stalin, there is always bound to be some (international or domestic) law which has been broken. EVERYONE, even Stalin or Hitler, is entitled to judicial review prior to detention (cf Hafidz Baharom’s point in the penultimate paragraph of his at post 10 Dec 08 : 5.29PM).

    Shinliang, there is no good ground for the ISA. When you talk about “a national threat that requires immediate action” the police, the AG has enough powers outside the ISA to keep whoever in detention for a long enough to get evidence. Do not get confused between investigation and trial times. Have you ever seen rapists or murderers being released prior to their trial? Even if there is a “constant threat from terrorists”, there are enough criminal law provisions in place to detain and charge the culprits.

    That being said I admire Hafidz Baharom for stating your opinion. Most who are pro-ISA do not have your courage, unless they are the very ministers benefiting from abusive powers.

  17. Eric says:

    This is an aside but:

    “Name me one country that follows the Islamic laws according to the holy book and hadith.”

    This point is fundamentally flawed. The Marxists will come and tell you: who followed Marx and Engels’ books, communism still applies today. Capitalists will come and say: who followed Hayek’s theories or Shumpeter’s, capitalism still applies today. So will the secularists, the Buddhists, the Christians. Well, anyone opinionated on earth.

  18. Eric,

    There is no such thing as a perfect administration philosophy. Social democracy can’t work in a nation that’s not willing to tax its people highly, communism cannot work with monarchies involved, and monarchism does not work if the ruler is unfair.

  19. Hi Eric,

    There’s no courage involved when you’re merely stating facts and opinions, especially when you have the knowledge to do so 🙂

    And no, I don’t benefit from people being detained without trial, which is why I was against Teresa Kok’s detention, even if my personal vigil was held at home, during a blackout.

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