By Shanon Shah
ACADEMIC and activist Dr Kua Kia Soong was arrested under the Internal Security Act (ISA) during 1987's Operation Lallang. Upon his release, he wrote about his experiences in detention in his bestselling book, 445 Days under Operation Lalang. The book's third edition is going to print soon and will be available in bookshops and from human rights organisation Suaram.
Kua, the former opposition Member of Parliament (MP) for Petaling Jaya, has been monitoring detention without trial in Malaysia since his student days in the seventies. This, plus his own personal experience of being detained without trial, are what convinces him of the need for the ISA to be abolished, not just reviewed.
In this exclusive 15 March 2010 e-mail interview, Kua shares his responses on the Barisan Nasional (BN)'s anticipated parliamentary amendments to the ISA.
TNG: In the preface to your book's upcoming third edition, you list the BN government's previous overtures to amend the ISA, which did not materialise. If the BN tables the amendments during this parliamentary sitting, would it be the closest it has ever come to reviewing the ISA?
I think this time around, after the first tight slap in the face for the BN at the 8 March 2008 general election, the BN has to take the peoples' wishes more seriously. The marvel is the BN government has got away with [this] law, which is an affront to human rights, all these years when the country has been at peace after the Emergency ended in 1960.
But certainly, (Prime Minister Datuk Seri) Najib (Razak) is trying hard to legitimise his rule and shore up the country's reputation as a democratic country that respects human rights. Malaysia is also trying hard to get a seat in the (United Nations) Human Rights Council. We will be made a laughing stock if we still have the ISA when the time comes since such a law is right up the street of banana republics.
In the book's preface you also say that amending the ISA will only allow the BN government to abuse the law in its new form. But do you actually think it is more achievable to call for the ISA to be fully abolished? How is this more feasible than reviewing the Act?
In the olden days when the BN breathed fire in the kingdom far and wide, some people said it was not possible to abolish the ISA. This was a time when the democratic countries in the world [already] outlawed detention without trial.
Feasibility is just a word. Pakatan Rakyat, for example, is committed to abolishing detention without trial. [And] after [March 2008], it is now feasible to kick out the BN. It's really up to BN to decide if it wants to listen to the people or to rely on the same- old-same-old.
The BN's latest trick is to amend this law and not abolish it. This way it gets to keep [the ISA] for however long it takes to cling on to power [and use it on] the opposition and dissidents — the ISA's only function all these years.
What do you think of suggestions by some BN MPs for the Act to be reviewed in these specific areas:
Confine its use to terrorists only, not to stifle legitimate political dissent.
Malaysia already includes terrorism-related offences in the Penal Code and the Criminal Procedure Code. We also have legislation dealing with anti-terrorism financing.
Other democratic countries have specific anti-terrorism laws which allow for very short detention periods for suspected terrorists. If I am not mistaken, Turkey's law allows seven-and-a-half days of solitary confinement. Compare that to Malaysia's which allows 60 days for keeping an angel like me in solitary confinement. If we are to have a specific anti-terrorism law, we would still have to first abolish the ISA.
Judicial review should never have been amended away in the first place. Any democratic country must have judicial review. I have pointed out time and again that even during the worst days of Apartheid, South Africa still allowed judicial review.
Twenty-two years after being released, do you sense a shift in public perception towards the ISA?
I have been monitoring detention without trial in Malaysia ever since my student days in the seventies. I would say that the biggest shift in public opinion towards the ISA happened after Operation Lallang. This was because the BN government made a big mistake by arresting and detaining leaders from practically every aspect of civil society, especially do-gooders like us.
If it hadn't been for [the 11 Sept 2001 terrorist attacks against the US], the ISA would not have had a leg to stand on [now]. Just before that, we had managed to gather the biggest coalition of non-governmental organisations against this accursed Act. But the BN government managed to cling on to this convenient instrument of repression using international terrorism as an excuse.
Reformasi in 1998 and the arrest and detention of Reformasi leaders further helped to educate people, especially youths, about the cynical way the BN wields power. (Datuk Seri) Anwar (Ibrahim)'s black eye in 1998, the 2008 detentions of Raja Petra Kamaruddin, [Teresa Kok] and the Sin Chew Daily reporter are even more recent examples of the gross abuse of the ISA.
Do you think there are problems even within the anti-ISA movement? For example, in 2006, the president of the Malaysian Muslim Youth Movement (Abim) called for the ISA to be used against "bad apostates". But Abim is a member of the Abolish ISA Movement (GMI). During the controversial Bar Council forum on conversions in 2008, some PAS leaders refrained from advocating the ISA, since PAS is also part of GMI, but they called for the Sedition Act to be applied instead on the Council. What is your take on these inconsistencies?
I would say [Abim's stand] in 2006 was a minor aberration within GMI. GMI has been gathering strength through the years and has been consistent in its stand to abolish the ISA and not just to amend it. Suaram plays the role of secretariat within GMI and we will never accede to any inconsistent stand on human rights.
What would you say to the argument that Malaysia is not yet ready to have the ISA abolished?
I would say it's always the BN that is not ready to abolish the ISA. Malaysia was ready to do away with the colonial Emergency Ordinance in 1960 when the Emergency was officially declared over. We didn't need the ISA in the first place. The Alliance wanted it to deal with the Labour Party, the main opposition party and the workers' movement in order to stay in power.
As a former detainee, what do you think is the aspect of ISA detention that Malaysians are least aware of?
The period of solitary confinement, which is 60 days, is really mental torture. Others have been physically abused — just Google "Munawar Anees's statutory declaration" — all in our name. The abusers and torturers are doing their vile work in the name of the people. The state — including former premier Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad — pretends this is not happening. Remember what Mahathir said about Anwar's black eye.
Many Malaysians are not aware of the fact that the ISA has been used ever since 1960 to put away opposition leaders and workers' leaders, and often just before the general election.
They are also unaware of the manner in which the ISA has been amended, especially during Operation Lallang, in order to frustrate any legal attempts at applying for the writ of habeas corpus.