The Internal Security Act in Malaysia: abolish, not reform it

The draconian Internal Security Act (ISA) is no longer needed in Malaysia.


Some 20,000 or so Malaysians met the full force of Prime Minister Najib’s security forces when they demonstrated peacefully on August 1 in Kuala Lumpur against the repressive Internal Security Act (ISA), a draconian law used by the Malaysian Government to quell the Communist insurgents after the Malayan Emergency. By Malaysian standards, this was a mammoth demonstration; not only in size but also in the statement it made, considering the extent to which Mr Najib had gone to stop it. The government’s response to the demonstration casts further doubt on Mr Najib’s commitment to democratic reform.

Since coming into power on April 3, 2009, Mr Najib has portrayed himself as a reformer. He released 13 ISA detainees, including key HINDRAF leaders, and promised that he would amend the ISA. In addition, he also implemented some populist reform measures in the economic sphere. Although these changes raises Mr Najib’s popularity within the electorate,analysts have observed that Najib’s strategy mimics UMNO’s tried and tested formula of quick political wins which are long on form and short on substance.

The ISA was enacted in 1960 at the end of the Communist insurgency in Malaysia (then known as the Federated States of Malaya) as a measure to ensure internal security by detaining without trial suspected communist insurgents who may be planning and implementing acts that endanger public safety. According to the Malaysian Centre of Public Policy Studies, since its enactment, more than 10,000 citizens have been ‘deprived of their liberty and have been mentally and physically tortured under the ISA’. Furthermore, the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) has since been disbanded and Malaysia has established diplomatic ties with China, the MCP’s main benefactor. Those detained now are often Malaysian political activists, rather than military and para-military agents that threaten the nation. Journalists, academics, activists, religious leaders, students and politicians have been detained for the ‘crime’ of commenting critically on the UMNO-led political ideology. The ISA has been used to create an atmosphere of fear that curtails citizens’ participation in legitimate discussions on public issues.

It is important to recognise just how restrictive the ISA law is. While the original ISA legislation allowed for judicial review, this clause was removed by the Mahathir regime. The Home Minister now has absolute power to determine who is a threat to ‘national security’ and does not need to justify his/her actions. With the judicial system and security agencies (police, military, and civil defence forces) under the thumb of the ruling party, this law gives the Home Minister unbridled power [pdf].

Under the ISA, a person may be detained for up to 60 days without trial for an act which is ‘prejudicial to the security of the country’. Exactly what constitutes a prejudice to security has been—and continues to be—unclear. The law also suffers from various procedural deficiencies. A person detained under the ISA does not have effective recourse to legal protection nor any opportunity to establish innocence. This often leads to detention for extended periods. After the initial 60 days of incarceration, detention can be extended for a further two years and then renewed for successive two-year periods. A detainee can thus expect to remain in detention indefinitely. During the first 60 days of detention, detainees are allowed no family visits and no access to legal counsel. If a further two-year detention is approved, the detainee is taken to the Kamunting Detention Centre where they are held in isolation in what the Asia Pacific Human Rights Network describes as ‘small, poorly ventilated cells’. An example of this indefinite detention is Dr Abdullah Daud, a geo-info Lecturer at the University of Technology in Johor, who has been detained under the ISA for more than six years. The highly restrictive nature of this law, coupled with the tendency of the Malaysian government to abuse it, demonstrates why the ISA must be abolished, rather than reformed.

The ISA has been a powerful tool in maintaining UMNO hegemony. Nevertheless, in abolishing the ISA, Mr Najib’s administration may gain more than it loses. Although many vocal UMNO supporters are Malay chauvinists, hence partially explaining Mr Najib’s fear of implementing reforms which are perceived to be endangering Ketuanan Melayu (Malay supremacy), these extremists form only a minority (albeit a significant minority) within the Malaysian electorate. More broadly, the result of the 2008 general elections demonstrated that the majority of the Malaysian populace want civil and political reforms. The increasing regularity of public demonstrations further reveals that Malaysians are no longer willing to sacrifice their democratic freedoms. The ISA does not directly threaten Ketuanan Melayu in the same way as the affirmative action does. Therefore, abolishing the ISA could pacify the collective demands for civil and political reforms without jeopardizing UMNO’s pro-Malay support base. Najib could point out to the extremist faction in UMNO that the Malaysian Penal Code is adequate in protecting public safety without needing to fall back on the repressive ISA.

Malaysians want a government that guarantees the safety of its citizens without sacrificing genuine civil and political liberties. The ISA may have been an appropriate legislative response to the period of violent Communist insurgency, but UMNO’s ongoing misuse of the law, coupled with social demands for greater civil and political freedoms, underlines its archaic character and the need for its abolition. In abolishing the ISA, Mr Najib could demonstrate his genuine commitment to democratic reform. Malaysia may need legislation for terrorism-related crimes; it definitely does not need the ISA.

This article first appeared in East Asia Forum.

Anwar’s victory boosts Malaysian democracy

Anwar Ibrahim’s return to politics is set to boost democratic participation in Malaysia further.

Mr Anwar Ibrahim, returns to Parliament today (28 August 2008) as Opposition Leader, 10 years after he was sacked as Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister of Malaysia and heir apparent to the ‘throne’ of Dr Mahathir.

In many ways, the sacking of Anwar was probably the single most important event in the process of Malaysia becoming a mature democracy. For once, Malaysians had ‘a shared history’ – a story or a myth that brought Malaysians together.

Prior to Anwar Ibrahim’s sacking this common myth was May 13th – the race riot that was used over and over by the ruling Barisan Nasional (United Front) to blackmail Malaysians into submission. This myth was perpetuated by the successful developmentist state. Credit, no doubt must be given to Barisan Nasional, of which Anwar Ibrahim was part and parcel of for a good 14 years, for delivering on economic growth, peace and stability (read here).

Malaysia’s fortunes turned after the 1997/98 East Asian Financial Crisis which led to Anwar’s sacking. While having recovered, economic growth has not matched any of the government’s own projections and has paled in comparison to the likes of India, China and Vietnam, FDI has been on a downward trend while corruption has been on the upward trend.

Malaysians were relieved when Mahathir handed over to Prime Minister Badawi, in the hope of revising Malaysia’s fortunes. After having the strongest mandate ever for an incumbent Prime Minister, Badawi, managed to blow all this gain within the span of four years.

Enter Anwar Ibrahim. He successfully managed to bring together a social democratic party (The Democratic Action Party), a theocratic Islamic party (Parti Islam SeMalaysia with a strong theme of social & economic justice), with his Justice Party (whose economic leanings are at best unclear, and at worst populist) to form an alternative grand coalition called the Peoples Front. The 12th Malaysian General election has been described as a political tsunami for the significant shift away from the ruling party (read here). Anwar’s return to Parliament follows the evident disgust that Malaysians have for the ruling party.

What do Anwar Ibrahim and the Peoples Front bring to Malaysia?

The single biggest contribution evidently is the return to a more vibrant democracy. The election had seen a cleansing of the old guard (with dubious records) and those having survived it, being replaced. The pressure that Mr Ibrahim has put on the government has already delivered results. Several far reaching measures in restoring the independence of the Judiciary, the Anti Corruption Agency are now being put in place. Furthermore, the Peoples Front is running four state governments along the West Coast – the economic heartbeat of the nation. The reform measures they have put in place are now setting benchmarks in better governance.

At the same time, Mr Ibrahim has been criticised for focusing on forming a new government through defection and sidelining his coalition members. Mr Ibrahim has been been taken to task for not strengthening and/or institutionalising the Peoples Front. A shadow cabinet has yet to be formed and it is still unclear how policies from the Peoples Front are and will be formulated. Mr Ibrahim would do well to remember the mistakes made by previous opposition leaders who relied on their personality and failed miserably rather than strengthening the institutional framework for the opposition parties to work together.

A bigger threat and one that the more sober commentators hope will diminish with Mr Ibrahim’s return to Parliament are select, albeit limited, populist measures that have been introduced by the Peoples Front run state government. The PAS manifesto for the general elections was ‘The Welfare State’ while Mr Ibrahim has promised to continue expensive fuel subsidies if the Peoples Front forms the government. While it is understandable that these policies are being formulated to gain support from the people, it is hoped that these policies do not become a permanent solution.

For the international community – not much will change. Mr Ibrahim believes in orthodox economics and will not bring much change in policy. What will be of interest is the emphasis on good governance and a move away from ethnic based affirmative action through socio-economic policies to a more needs based affirmative action.

It is heartening to see that democracy is alive and well in Malaysia. The people of Malaysia are taking a risk with this new coalition, and are to be commended for that. The ruling party should also take a bow – for having delivered on economic growth, they now see its citizens make their own decisions in determining their future. Barisan Nasional, probably the most successful party to run a country (or maybe PAP of Singapore deserves that laurel) can be proud for not allowing Malaysia to descend into chaos (ala Zimbabwe) after its fortunes reversed.

This article first appeared in East Asia Forum