Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Why the ISA Must Go

Written by johnleemk on 1:21:05 pm Jun 27, 2007.
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I am not particularly enthralled, excited or thrilled by the human rights issues often raised by Malaysian liberals. If you ask me, these issues are not nearly as relevant as some truly pressing and fundamental issues, such as education.

But that does not mean we should totally ignore the problem of human rights in Malaysia. Our rights may not be directly infringed — this website is evidence of that — but they are indirectly curtailed by the chilling and self-censoring effect of laws like the Internal Security Act — the dearth of other websites like this is evidence of that.

(I have no evidence at all to support this, so this is purely a conjectural hypothesis, but I suspect that most intelligent and moderate Malaysians are afraid to voice their views, thus ceding the debate to the fearless extremists from both sides.)

I have already dealt with the subject of freedom of speech and how it destroys the higher education of our country. But the ISA too is an issue worth discussing, even though I do not rank it high on my priority list. (If you ask me, if we can only fix our education, the next generation can fix almost everything else.)

What is the ISA, you may ask? The ISA is a law allowing the government to detain for a practically indefinite period anyone who it suspects may pose a threat to national security.

The actual wording of the law sounds more liberal, but as it has been interpreted and applied, the ISA is basically a free pass for the government to arrest anyone it likes, without any judicial review whatsoever.

This mentality has pervaded our society to the extent that a leader of the Gerakan Mansuhkan ISA (GMI, or Movement to Abolish the ISA) actually called for the ISA to be used to detain Muslim heretics.

This represents the most obvious danger of the ISA, in my view — the slippery slope it poses. First, you're just rounding up communist terrorists, next, you're arresting infidels and political dissidents.

This is why the ancestor of the ISA, a law written along similar lines, had to be renewed every year by Parliament — to check abuse. The government removed this check by passing a permanent ISA in the early 1960s.

So, at the very least, we should be curtailing the ability of the executive to simply arrest whoever it likes for whatever reason. We must confine the ISA to its original purpose — national security.

But is the ISA even necessary in the first place? Does it not run counter to the idea that one must be considered innocent until proven guilty in a court of law?

The British themselves have something along the lines of the ISA, but the most the executive is allowed to summarily detain anyone before charging them with a crime in court is a few weeks. Proposals to extend this period to a few months have been struck down by Parliament.

So, we ought to further curtail the ISA's reach and not allow the Home Minister to detain anyone he likes for as long as he likes. That makes sense.

But this does not answer the question of whether preventive detention can ever be justified — that you should be allowed to arrest someone before that someone commits a crime.

To me, the answer is simple — yes, but provided you can present evidence in a court of law that shows there was an attempt to commit a crime. Attempted murder is as much a crime as real murder.

At the moment, the ISA has no need for evidence because the Home Minister's decisions are not subject to judicial review. This is wrong, and has to end.

We either have enough evidence to convict someone of a crime, or we do not. The purpose of the British law is to allow the police to gather evidence while the suspect sits in jail, which makes a lot more sense than the approach some law enforcers in America have taken, whereby the suspect is arrested on petty crimes while evidence is rounded up. (Amerian gangster Al Capone was arrested for activities unrelated to his involvement in the gang scene.)

For this reason, I think the ISA must be abolished. It cannot sit well with any Malaysian who respects the law and the principles it is founded upon that you can be thrown in jail for an indefinite period without any hope of release, when there is not a shred of evidence against you.


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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

Infernal Ramblings is run by John Lee. For more, see the About section. If you have any questions or comments, do drop him a line.


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