Malaysia’s struggle to give up the giddy powers of the Internal Security Act illustrates Asian governments’ difficulties in changing their emergency mindset

(9 Dcember 2011) — Two months after Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak declared the repeal of the Internal Security Act (ISA), which — among other emergency-related ordinances — allowed detention without trial, Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein said a replacement law would carry similar provisions.

Detention without trial would continue under two new laws to deal with terrorism and maintain public order, Hishammuddin said, justifying the decision with examples of the US Patriot Act and Britain’s Terrorism Act.

Even more controversially, the Peaceful Assembly Bill was bulldozed into law on November 29. The law forbids street protests and imposes a slew of stipulations for other assemblies, though it allows gatherings at designated areas away from public or government facilities.

This comes after tens of thousands of people took to the streets earlier this year for the Bersih 2.0 rally on July 9, organised by the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections.

In November, the government detained 13 people suspected to be members of Al Qaeda-linked Indonesian militant group Jemaah Islamiyah, in Tawau, Sabah, for alleged terrorist activities. The arrests, carried out under the ISA, sparked criticism of a volte-face by Prime Minister Najib.

Home Minister Hishammuddin said the arrests, which included six Indonesians, were in line with the new anti-terrorism law replacing the ISA. The Indonesians would be deported upon completion of investigations, “but the Malaysians will be charged if there is sufficient evidence”, he said.

Critics point out that the existing penal code was amended a few years ago to deal specifically with terrorism.

The original ISA dates back to the Emergency Regulations Ordinance 1948, which was enacted by the British to combat insurgency and communism. Malaysia, then Malaya, kept the law after gaining independence in 1957, passing the ISA in 1960 as the country continued its fight against communism.

The threat of communism faded in the 1980s but the ISA remained on the books.

On October 27, 1987, the government carried out Operasi Lalang, weeding out political opposition with ISA arrests of more than 100 opposition leaders and social activists.

Over the years, the government has increasingly used the act to ensure its political stranglehold. Unsurprisingly, many Malaysians were sceptical when Najib announced the repeal of the draconian law on September 15, a day before Malaysia Day. Consequently, few in Malaysia were surprised by the detention provisions in the new act, which experts described as old wine in new skin.

But Malaysia is not the only country grappling with the ISA. In neighbouring island state of Singapore, 2,460 ISA arrests were made from 1959 to 1990, the government said in November.

The reasons for arrest included involvement in communism-related activities to overthrow the government, racial and religious extremism, Konfrontasi — Indonesia’s violent opposition to the creation of Malaysia in the 1960s, foreign subversion and espionage, and terrorism, said Singapore Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs Teo Chee Hean.

India has also witnessed battles between security forces and civil society groups in the debate to repeal an ISA-prototype, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA), which grants the military special powers to detain suspected extremists without trial.

The country had a 20-month experiment with emergency powers between 1975 and 1977, when then prime minister Indira Gandhi, in her own words, brought “democracy to a grinding halt” on the pretext of securing the nation from “internal disturbances”. The period not only hurt the evolution of democratic mechanisms in the country, but also severely impacted the socio-economic growth of the nation.

140,000 people were arrested without trial during the period, according to Amnesty International. Along with the abuse and torture of detainees and political prisoners, actions like destruction of slums and low-income housing on the pretext of removing poverty and forced sterilization of men and women under a family planning initiative by Indira’s son, Sanjay Gandhi drew widespread condemnation.

Along with the AFSPA, which is enforced primarily in select pockets of the nation, like Jammu & Kashmir and the North-Eastern states that are grappling with secessionist forces, India had also experimented with laws like the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) on a national level.

From Pakistan’s emergency declaration in 2007 to suppress lawyers’ protests of the sacking of the chief justice, to Thailand’s use of emergency powers in 2005 to combat insurgents in three predominantly Muslim provinces, Asia is replete with examples of the use of emergency powers.

Back in Malaysia, the opposition parties and civil society movements see the ISA as a mere tool for political repression. Increasingly politically astute Malaysians are growing restless over prime minister Najib’s so-called reforms, which they believe are high on rhetoric but light on substance.

Still, it would be foolhardy to expect the government to completely disregard the need for ISA in an era of global terrorist threat. Electoral politics may suggest that the government looks to appease voters but ultimately, giving up the giddy powers of the ISA will not be easy.


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