Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Do Raja Petra Justice: Abolish the ISA

Written by johnleemk on 11:58:46 am May 6, 2008.
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The detention of Raja Petra Kamarudin under charges of sedition is all over the news right now. The Sedition Act and the way it has been used here are clearly unconscionable; however, rather than dwell on that, I would prefer to pay tribute to Raja Petra by responding to Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar's insistence that the Internal Security Act stay. I think we would truly do Raja Petra justice by calling for the repeal of the ISA and the release of all detainees in Kamunting than by simply calling for his release alone.

The ISA was originally introduced by the British as part of a package of laws meant to address the communist insurgency during the 1950s. Originally, these laws had to be renewed annually by Parliament, to ensure they stayed relevant; if they were not relevant, they would automatically lapse unless Parliament acted. In 1960, as the Emergency wound down, the government pushed the ISA through Parliament, which effectively made these laws permanent.

What does the ISA actually do? Its original purpose was simply to allow the government to detain terrorist suspects while evidence against them was gathered. Usually the police must release an individual after a relatively brief amount of time (I believe 48 hours) if they cannot bring charges against him. If he is detained under the ISA, he can be detained for up to two years. Originally, detentions were subject to judicial review; if a court felt the government was misusing the act to detain people for political reasons, rather than to protect national security, it could order the release of the detainees concerned. The government decided to close this off, however, and in a subsequent amendment, ensured that the Home Minister's decisions to detain individuals would never be subject to judicial review. In short, the government can arrest whoever it likes, nominally for reasons of national security, but in reality for whatever reasons it likes, and nobody can stop it.

The government of course insists that it only detains people for reasons of internal security. That is how Syed Hamid Albar defended it today in Parliament. Like his predecessors, he called it a necessary law to preserve national security. There is no mention of how it was originally meant to be temporary, no mention of how he does not have to justify his decisions to anyone but the Cabinet. If the government really wants to, it can haul you away for "national security reasons", and nobody can do a thing about it.

This sort of abuse was supposed to be checked by Parliament. Tun Dr Ismail, perhaps one of the most sincere Home Ministers we have ever had, originally fought for the passage of the ISA because he believed a free press and a strong Parliament would check the government's abuses of the ISA; if the government abused it for political reasons, Malaysians would know about it and condemn it. Parliament would repeal the act, or otherwise tighten it to prevent abuse. But tell me, do we have a free press or a strong Parliament? It is only now, after the opposition has checked the government's longstanding 2/3rds majority that we even have more than cursory debate about the ISA!

In the meantime, in the almost five decades since the passage of the ISA, what has happened? We have become afraid of ourselves. We've become afraid to think the wrong thoughts and say the wrong words. We don't dare do anything that might even possibly appear subversive because we believe it will land us in trouble. That is exactly why Raja Petra's website has been so successful — like no other media outlet in the world today, it gives the Malaysian government the middle finger and says the most absurdly controversial things you could ever imagine. We're afraid to be political. Raja Petra is blatantly political (if non-partisan) and shoves it in your face.

This state of fear we are in is of course perfectly reasonable. Everybody knows that the ISA is used not to protect us from terrorists, but to protect us from ourselves. It is used to protect us from our own thoughts, our own beliefs, our own words. After all, if there was enough proof that someone intended to kill Malaysians, we would charge him in court rather than lock him up under the ISA. If there's no proof that he intends to commit a crime, for all intents and purposes, the only reason he is sitting in a cell in Kamunting is because he pissed the government off.

And is that not the case with by far the bulk of ISA detainees? Remember Operation Lalang? Do you mean to tell me that a few politicians and some Chinese educationists constitute a threat to our safety and wellbeing? How about the fact that many MPs sitting on the opposition benches right now have had stints in Kamunting? Isn't it telling that the government likes to lock up its most vocal political opponents? Who else is rotting in Kamunting right now? A bunch of Indian lawyers and a few Malays who worship teapots. Oh, and some "terrorists" whom the government doesn't have any evidence against. Why are we doing this to ourselves? Why do we let the Malaysian government lock up people it doesn't like?

This is not just about some opposition politicians or activists opening their big fat mouths and getting into trouble. This is about people trying to worship their God and the government saying they have to go to jail for their faith. This is about people trying to state what they believe to be the truth, and getting in trouble for it. What was the taunt we used to chant? "Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can't hurt me." Is there anything wrong with letting people open their big fat mouths?

This climate of fear we live in has more consequences than we may think. I was talking with a friend from a foreign institution who was considering going back to do some research about our education system. I thought it was a great idea, and suggested that when his research was complete, he submit his findings to a Malaysian academic journal for publication. His response? "Heh, no thanks, John — I don't think your ISA lifestyle is for me." All he was doing was some research about our schools — and he was too scared to publish them here for Malaysian academics and politicians to learn from lest he get in trouble for some stray remark. That, my friends, is a very real consequence of the climate of fear we live in.

When thinkers and scholars are afraid to publish their findings because they might be politically incorrect, when we decided not to tell the emperor that he is actually naked, who ultimately suffers? It's not the Singaporeans or the Westerners or the Jews or whatever the bogeyman of the day is. It's us. We attend Malaysian schools. We drive on Malaysian roads. We eat Malaysian food. We pay our taxes in Malaysian money. When nobody wants to tell the truth about these things, who suffers? Nobody but us.

But in the climate of fear that the ISA engenders, that's exactly what happens. We suffer because nobody will tell the government it is wrong. We suffer because we know the government is wrong, and we don't dare to say what we think. I still remember when my former boss and good friend Nathaniel Tan was detained last year. For a few agonising hours, nobody but himself and a few cops knew where he was. In that brief space of time, my mother, someone who knows the brutal hand of a violent dictatorship all too well, was gripped by memories of political opponents being kidnapped — hauled off into the night, never to be seen again.

Thankfully, Nat resurfaced. We live in a country civilised enough to let us know where our political detainees are being held, and a country decent enough not to summarily execute them. But I don't know if that's good enough. Like Raja Petra, I want a country where I don't have to live in fear for speaking a few mere words. I want a country where I don't have to suffer because those who know what the country's problems are refuse to speak of them lest they be tossed into a cell and see their life's work torn to pieces in front of them by a vicious jailer, as one intellectual has had done to him. I want a country where criminals are given a fair trial, and innocent people do not have to live in fear of a government that hates the truth throwing them into jail for saying the wrong things. I want a country without the Internal Security Act.


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