Malaysia re­vives in­def­i­nite jail, op­po­si­tion la­bels it re­pres­sion


Op­po­si­tion leader Lim Kit Siang had just been elected an op­po­si­tion law­maker in Malaysia’s Par­lia­ment three days ear­lier when racial ri­ots be­tween eth­nic Chi­nese and Malays broke out on May 13, 1969. The gov­ern­ment named Lim a sus­pected in­sti­ga­tor and ar­rested him a few days later.

No charges were filed. There was no trial, and no guar­an­tee he would ever be freed. The law un­der which he was ar­rested — the In­ter­nal Se­cu­rity Act — en­sured that he could be held in­def­i­nitely. For life, if the gov­ern­ment so wished.

So it was with great re­lief and eu­pho­ria that Malaysia wel­comed the abo­li­tion of the law by Prime Min­is­ter Na­jib Razak in 2012. The joy was short- lived. Last week, af­ter hours of de­bate in Par­lia­ment, where Na­jib’s rul­ing coali­tion has a ma­jor­ity, the gov­ern­ment passed a new law that crit­ics say is the ISA in an­other garb.

“Malaysia is re­gress­ing into a pe­riod of dark ages. This is very, very dis­turb­ing,” Lim, 74, said in a re­cent in­ter­view with the As­so­ci­ated Press.

The gov­ern­ment says the new Pre­ven­tion of Ter­ror­ism Act, which also al­lows detention with­out trial, is aimed at curb­ing Is­lamic mil­i­tancy amid fears that the Is­lamic State ( IS) group in the Mid­dle East could be spread­ing its ten­ta­cles to Asian coun­tries with Mus­lim pop­u­la­tions like Malaysia, In­done­sia, Philip­pines, In­dia and Pak­istan to find re­cruits.

Some 92 peo­ple have been de­tained over the past two years for al­legedly sup­port­ing IS, in­clud­ing 17 ar­rested on April 5 for plan­ning at­tacks in Kuala Lumpur, un­der an­other law that does not al­low in­def­i­nite detention.

About 60 per­cent of Malaysia’s 24 mil­lion peo­ple are Mus­lims, most of whom have lit­tle sym­pa­thy for Is­lamic ex­trem­ism in the Mid­dle East.

But crit­ics such as Lim fear that the new law is a sign that au­thor­i­tar­ian pol­i­tics is re­turn­ing to Malaysia to crush dis­sent as public sup­port for the gov­ern­ment erodes rapidly. It fared poorly in the 2008 gen­eral elec­tions when for the first time the rul­ing Na­tional Front coali­tion could not win a two-thirds ma­jor­ity in Par­lia­ment, com­ing to power with only a sim­ple ma­jor­ity. In the 2013 elec­tion, it won a ma­jor­ity of seats but lost the popular vote.

Na­jib’s own po­si­tion in the rul­ing party is threat­ened. He is also sad­dled with al­le­ga­tions of mis­man­age­ment at a debt-laden state in­vest­ment com­pany and ef­forts to link him to the death of a Mon­go­lian woman nine years ago. He also im­ple­mented an un­pop­u­lar new goods and ser­vices tax this month to boost gov­ern­ment rev­enue amid a weaker econ­omy.

“If his­tory is an in­di­ca­tor, then th­ese new laws could po­ten­tially be very im­por­tant tools for the regime to hang on to power be­fore the next elec­tions due in 2018. The new laws can en­sure op­po­nents are crip­pled be­fore they can con­test,” po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst Ibrahim Suf­fian told the AP.

Trade Union­ists, Stu­dent Lead­ers, Po­lit­i­cal Ac­tivists


Na­jib, who came to power in 2009, says the new law is ded­i­cated to fight­ing “vi­o­lent ex­trem­ism” and has promised it won’t be used against po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents. Dur­ing the ses­sion to pass the anti-ter­ror­ism law, law­mak­ers also ap­proved amend­ments to strengthen the Sedi­tion Act in­clud­ing manda­tory jail sen­tences and longer jail term of up to 20 years.

The Sedi­tion Act has been used ex­ten­sively in re­cent months, with more than 100 ac­tivists, politi­cians, aca­demi­cians, jour­nal­ists and a car­toon­ist be­ing in­ves­ti­gated or charged in court since last year.

Na­jib went on na­tional tele­vi­sion on Thurs­day to de­fend the new act.

“If we wait for an in­ci­dent to oc­cur ... the im­pli­ca­tions would be bad. So be­fore any­thing hap­pens, we can take ac­tion un­der this new act,” he said.

The ISA and Sedi­tion Act are han­dovers from the Bri­tish colo­nial days de­signed to fight com­mu­nists. But af­ter in­de­pen­dence in 1957, the laws have been largely used against thou­sands of trade union­ists, stu­dent lead­ers, po­lit­i­cal ac­tivists, re­li­gious groups and aca­demi­cians who op­posed the gov­ern­ment. Many op­po­si­tion politi­cians were among some 10,000 peo­ple de­tained so far un­der the ISA.

Among them was Lim, who was only 28 when he was ar­rested af­ter the 1969 race ri­ots. On be­ing told he faced im­mi­nent ar­rest, he fled to Sin­ga­pore but re­turned a few days later.

On the flight back, Lim said he wrote on post­cards ask­ing his wife to take care of their four chil­dren, aged 3 to 8 years, and left them in the seat pocket.

He was de­tained at the air­port and held in soli­tary con­fine­ment for two months, with no ac­cess to lawyers or fam­ily for the first month.

Po­lice in­ter­ro­gated Lim in­ten­sively, up to 24 hours in the first week with no breaks, to try to make him con­fess to be­ing one of the mas­ter- mind of the ri­ots that had killed nearly 200 peo­ple.

“Those were the most ex­cru­ci­at­ing mo­ments. I had many mo­ments of de­spair. They tried to break me down men­tally and psy­cho­log­i­cally. My fam­ily didn’t know where I was and I didn’t know whether they were safe,” he said.

Lim was freed Oct. 1, 1970, af­ter about 17 months in detention.

The night­mare re­curred in 1987 when then Prime Min­is­ter Ma­hathir Mo­hamad, fac­ing se­vere po­lit­i­cal chal­lenges, locked up many po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents.

Also ar­rested with Lim was his el­dest son, Lim Guan Eng, who was then 27.

“For the first few weeks, we were iso­lated and not given any in­for­ma­tion. They gave us a mix of truth and fake news to try and desta­bi­lize us,” Lim said.

Just like be­fore, each de­tainee was kept in a bare cell com­pris­ing a sin­gle bed with a thin mat­tress, a ta­ble and chair.

He said most de­tainees be­came re­signed to their fate but a feel­ing of out­rage and anger of­ten sur­faced at be­ing held with­out any re­course in court.

Lim and his son were freed 18 months later. Both are now law­mak­ers and the younger Lim is the top elected of­fi­cial, the chief min­is­ter, of north­ern Pe­nang state.

“No one should be locked up for their po­lit­i­cal be­liefs. Peo­ple will be locked up not be­cause they are ter­ror­ists but be­cause they are not in the good books of the author­ity,” Lim said.

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