Malaysia to abolish the Internal Security Act

Chan Weng Hong

Protest against the 'Internal Security Act (ISA)' near the National Mosque in Kuala Lumpur.

Protest against the 'Internal Security Act (ISA)' near the National Mosque in Kuala Lumpur. (2006)

So we had it. Prime Minister Najib Razak of Malaysia announced on 15th September that the draconian Internal Security Act (ISA) would be abolished, to be replaced by two new anti-terrorism laws. For unfamiliar readers, the ISA allows for detention without trial for individuals deemed to be a threat to national security, for up to two years.

A legacy of British colonialism, the ISA was originally enacted with the intention to use it against communists and their sympathizers, but had since been utilized by the Malaysian government to round up people it deemed to be dissidents, a category which included opposition parliamentarians, academics, journalists, etc. For this, the Malaysian government had been subjected to repeated calls to abolish the ISA.

I must confess that I did not see it coming, not so soon at least. Predictably, online chatter had already offered a myriad of opinions on this piece of news, with cynics dismissing this as a public relations move by a Barisan Nasional (BN) gearing up for the next general election (slated to happen on 2013); while more idealistic individuals hailed this as yet another milestone in Malaysia’s journey to be a liberal democracy. There are some (yours truly included) though, who held a more guardedly optimistic view on this matter. Here’s why.

Short of being an actual annus horibillis, 2011 had not been a good year for the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) coalition. Still smarting from their poor showing in the previous March 2008 general elections and dealing with the political fallout from the Perak Constitutional Crisis in 2009, the BN government entered 2011 facing an increasingly assertive and polarized electorate.

To be fair to Najib, he did took some steps to pursue a reformist agenda, unveiling, among other things, the New Economic Model (NEM), the Government Transformation Programme (GTP), the Economic Transformation Programme (ETM), and the almost cliché 1Malaysia concept. All such initiatives were supposed to bring about greater national cohesion and developed country status to Malaysia as per the earlier Vision 2020 Programme (readers unfamiliar with Malaysia could be pardoned for their ignorance of Malaysia’s alphabet soup of acronyms).

Despite presenting a more accommodative image domestically and internationally through these roadmaps and managing to bring about a solid 7.2 % growth for the economy as of 2010, the embarrassing Wikileaks revelations (notably on the lavish and ostentatious private lives of leading BN personalities) left a sour note for the BN at the end of 2010. Growing public cynicism towards the BN coalition, and its handling of the protracted Anwar Ibrahim sodomy trial in particular, was further aggravated by the high-handed manner in which the BN coalition handled the BERSIH 2.0 democracy march (which demanded electoral reforms and an end to ‘dirty’ politics) during early July.

The unsatisfactory conclusion presented in the report (released a week after the BERSIH 2.0 protests) of the commission investigating the suspicious demise of political secretary Teoh Beng Hock while in custody of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC), led to more public dissatisfaction with the BN. Worse, despite their strenuous efforts, the BN failed to make the case that the dramatic economic turnaround of Penang’s economy was due to the previous (BN) administration’s efforts, rather than the leadership of current Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng, who is also the General Secretary of the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP).

Viewed in this context, it is not hard to share the cynics’ opinion that Najib’s announcement regarding the end of the ISA is nothing more than a cheap public relations move, a ‘ground sweetener’ in preparation of the coming general elections. Considering the timing of the announcement (just one day before Malaysia Day), this move would allow Najib to further establish his credentials as a reformist, remove some favorite talking points of opposition leaders (several of whom, such as DAP’s Karpal Singh, Lim Kit Siang, and PAS’ Mohammad Sabu had been detained under the ISA), and tying all that up with his 1Malaysia concept of a more internally cohesive and harmonious vision of Malaysia.

The whole exercise would in turn be backed-up by predictable reminders (courtesy of the state media apparatus) to the citizenry about the BN’s efforts to develop Malaysia, replete with black-and-white footage of Najib’s father, the former prime minister Tun Abdul Razak (the so-called ‘father of development’ of Malaysia). As for dealing with political opponents, well, the judicial independence is widely deemed to be nil (Remember the Lingam tapes scandal, anyone?), while the security forces are seen to be at the disposal of the BN.

So, if the BN government wanted to bust someone, the cops could just swoop down to so-and-so’s house complete with fabricated evidence and the compliant judiciary all too willing to pronounce a guilty sentence on the defendant. The ISA hardly needed to be invoked. Furthermore, there is no telling on what exactly is the scope of the two new anti-terrorist laws will be. Perhaps a potential BERSIH 3.0 demonstration could be subject to these new laws because the government labels democracy activists as ‘terrorists’? It is depressing, yes, but it is hard not to be a cynic on Malaysian politics.

On the other hand, there is reason to rejoice. After all, the ISA has been abolished. View in the light of greater citizen activism in Malaysia in recent years (of which the abolishment of the ISA has been a leading cause), it does showed that the government listens (or is forced to listen) when enough pressure comes from the rakyat.

Short of being a full-fledged ‘Rakyat Power’ moment, it does suggests that there is a future for civil activism, and the future is looking quite bright indeed. Furthermore, Malaysia’s international profile might also be significantly improved, and Malaysia’s ratings on Freedom House looks set to ascend. Idealistic Malaysians could be excused for their belief that Malaysia is going to be a liberal democracy soon.

There is no doubt that the abolishment of the ISA represented a milestone of sorts in Malaysia’s political development. To start with, it represented a further break with the colonial past, and it does tentatively place Malaysia on a more liberal political pathway. Above all, it does signify that the BN coalition is finally realizing that it had to take citizens’ demands seriously if it wanted to be return to parliament with a greater winning margin for the next general elections.

However, pessimists and cynics do have their points. Long overdue judicial and electoral reform were either still not being carried out, or languishing in some BN-sponsored ‘study commissions’. And let’s not forget the immense patronage networks set up by the ruling coalition’s grassroots. For the influence of the BN coalition rested not only upon the powers of an allied judiciary and security apparatus; the periodic material rewards it dishes out to rural constituencies and the juicy contracts it handed out to pro-BN businessmen assured it a healthy margin a support from across the entire spectrum of the Malaysian electorate.

And let’s not forget the BN’s extensive hold on the media apparatus and the civil service, on which hundreds of thousands of jobs depended. If the fundamental reason behind the euphoria surrounding the abolishment of the ISA is that it heralds a more democratic Malaysia, I must say that it is at best premature. Until the rule of law be firmly established, until money politics could be eradicated (or contained), until people could truly speak up without fear of harassment; the vision of a more democratic Malaysia in the making will be a pipedream.

If Malaysians truly desire for a more progressive and democratic Malaysia, they should take the initiative to pressed for the formation of a more impartial judiciary, a more professional police force, internal reform within political parties (and hence eliminate the great power held by division chiefs, the source of much corruption and unfair patronage) and a more expansive civil society.

Thus, while Malaysians are savoring the good news, they should be reminded that the road ahead is still replete with obstacles and challenges. Democracy is above all about participation; if the Malaysian rakyat were to take the chill pill and assume that all will be smooth sailing, they might find that their hard-won gains be reversed by yet another insidious political machination.

With the nullification of the ISA and its powers to make arbitrary arrests, Malaysians should now take the initiative to speak up more on issues which matter to them, to fight for justice for the marginalized, and so on. While I will be following the enactment of the two new anti-terrorist laws with great interest, I would also like to end this piece by wishing a great syabas to all Malaysians.

Photo courtesy of the International Institute of Social History.