People & Power
Justice and expedience in Malaysia
Critics say the government uses a controversial security law to suppress opposition.
Last Modified: 29 Sep 2008 10:23 GMT

A protest by Malaysia's ethnic Indians was violently suppressed last year [EPA]
People & Power's Aloke Devichand reports from Kuala Lumpur where critics of the Malaysian government say it is using a controversial security law to suppress political opponents.

To be elected to a state assembly is quite an achievement for most people.

The achievement of M Manoharan is therefore all the more remarkable given that he was voted in as an assemblyman in this year's Malaysian general election while he was in detention.

Manoharan was sworn in at the Kamunting Detention Centre where he is being held under Malaysia's controversial Internal Security Act (ISA).

The ISA allows the government to hold detainees without trial.

He was arrested in December last year along with four other leaders of the Hindu Rights Action Force (Hindraf) six weeks after several thousand Malaysian Indians took to the streets, demonstrating against alleged discrimination by the government.

The authorities used water cannons and tear gas to disperse the crowds.

Pushpaneela Suppiah, Manoharan's wife, says his convincing win in an electoral district with an ethnic Chinese majority shows he is not a threat.

"This is not fair to detain my husband and his four friends who were fighting for the rights of minority groups in this country," she says. "They were only voicing out. They didn't do anything wrong. 

"You can see he is not a threat to the country – otherwise they would not have voted for him."

1950s law

Malaysia's ISA has its roots in the 1950s, when the country, then under British colonial rule, was fighting a Communist insurgency.

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Almost six decades on and the Communist threat has gone but the law remains.

Opponents say many of the act's original checks and balances have been eroded over the years and the ISA is now being used to stifle political dissent.

"The Communists surrendered way back in 1989. They surrendered. So that's the end of the necessity to use the Internal Security Act," Karpal Singh, the lawyer acting on behalf of the Hindraf detainees, says.

"But the Internal Security Act is being kept as a law for the government to use as and when it pleases against its political opponents."


Singh says charges should either be brought against his clients or else they should be released.

"If they are a threat to national security, charge them in an open court of law. Give them an opportunity to defend themselves," he says. "But the government is not willing to do that. Because there is no evidence."

Hishamuddin Rais compares the ISA to a "guillotine hanging that is constantly hanging over the heads of the citizens of Malaysia."

Rais is a well-known comedian who was detained under the ISA. He was given no reason for his arrest.

The experience is now regular material in his act but at the time Rais did not see the funny side.
"I ended up in this secret place … A small cell. I mean as big as this carpet. And I stayed there, solitary confinement for two months.

Hishamuddin Rais' arrest is now used as material for his comedy act

"Everyday from 8 to 6 without failure I would be blindfolded and brought to another room where five or six or seven of them interrogated me in this room. 

"I have no lawyer, I don't know where I am, I don't know what the accusation is. Later they say 'OK we are done with you.' You are now detained for two years."

While he says no reason was given, Rais believes he was detained because he took part in a political reform movement called Reformasi. 

"I was active in the cultural field. I write plays, I write comedy, I make film. At the same time I participated in public protest. So based on this they detained me for two years. And it's just through the signature of the minister of home affairs."

Government denial

The minister of home affairs denies the ISA is being used against political opponents of the government.

"No. Even though it may be a coincidence – the person may be a politician. But the politician does not have a license to act against the law, or to jeopardise the security or the well-being of the country," Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar told Al Jazeera.

"We must be very clear about this. He is not targeted because he has a political ideology or point-of-view. The democratic process allows him to do that."

Before 9/11, the US State Department was highly critical of the ISA although it has been less outspoken since Malaysia became involved in the so-called war on terror.

Several of those held at the Kamunting Detention Centre are alleged to have links to Islamist groups such as Jemaah Islamiya, including Norlaila Othman's husband who was arrested more than six years ago.

Norlaila says her husband was given no reason for his arrest and has not had the chance to be tried in court.

"More or less the way they treated him is like [an] animal," she says.

"From day one of the arrest until 21 days later when I met him in the centre, the first thing he asked me to do was to keep quiet. Not to see the lawyers, not to see the politicians.

"He said if I keep quiet he will be released faster."

Nationwide campaign

Six years on, Norlaila has stopped following that advice; her husband was due to be released this year but his detention has been extended.

She has now joined the Abolish ISA Movement, which campaigns against the act across Malaysia.

The home affairs minister says the ISA aims to bring people back into society

"I cannot stand anymore staying in the house, keeping quiet. You don't share your grievances with other people.  Because your neighbours don't understand how you feel inside."

But Datuk Seri Syed Hamid Albar says that although the government retains power over the act "there is still the inherent ability of the courts to question whether what we have done is in accordance with the law".

Lawyers representing the detainees, however, dispute the home affairs minister's explanation.

They claim that once detention is certified by a minister, lawyers can question whether procedures have been followed, but cannot scrutinise the reasons for an ISA detention.

"You cannot challenge the grounds in the court of law. The subjective satisfaction of the home minister in detaining someone is beyond judicial review," Karapal Singh says.

"There are other laws to care of anybody who is acting against national security. We have the penal code. A host of other laws under which a person can be tried. And a person who is detained ought to be given a right to a hearing in an open court of law," he added.

Bringing into society

The government says that the long-term aim of the ISA is to actually bring people back into mainstream society.

"It is a preventive law, it is not a punishment," Syed Hamid Albar says. "It is meant to correct. And it has done that exactly."

Those who have been held, wrongly they say, under the ISA will agree to disagree with the home affairs minister.

On the day he was released from detention, Hishammuddin Rais told supporters it was not him that required correction, but the law itself.

"I say we are not yet free because there are still many more still detained in Kamunting under the ISA," he says.

"Until this law is repealed, and put into the graveyard – we will continue to fight."

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