By Kua Kia Soong
This 29th anniversary of the launch of Operation Lalang is perhaps the best opportunity for Dr Mahathir Mohamad – if he has indeed become a reformed democrat – to apologise to the detainees and to the nation for that dastardly action in 1987 and the subsequent assault on the Malaysian Judiciary.
On Oct 27, 1987, Mahathir’s government began arresting and detaining without trial a very large number of people – Members of Parliament, politicians, unionists, NGO activists, religious leaders and educationists, including this writer. The official figure was 106 people detained.
While the justification given was that this was necessary to defuse the racial tension at the time, Bapa Malaysia, the Tunku put it bluntly: “Umno was facing a break-up. The Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s hold on the party appeared critical when election rigging was alleged to have given him a very narrow victory against Tengku Razaleigh.
“The case alleging irregularities brought by Umno members was pending in court. If the judgment went against him he would have no choice but to step down. So he had to find a way out of his predicament. A national crisis had to be created to bring Umno together as a united force to fight a common enemy – and the imaginary enemy in this case was the Chinese community… Overnight, Malaysia has become a Police State….”
In other words, Operation Lalang was a deliberate and cynical move by Mahathir to stay in office. This is a far cry from his recent boast about “never ever been asked to go… unlike the present Prime Minister!”
His subsequent action in sacking the Lord President Tun Salleh Abas and suspending three Supreme Court judges in order to pre-empt the legal challenge to his position in Umno was unprecedented in the history of Commonwealth countries. The Tribunal’s Report recommending the sacking of Salleh was described by world renowned Geoffrey Robertson QC as “among the most despicable documents in modern legal history….”
Kit Siang on Mahathir, 2014
On Feb 16, 2014, Opposition Leader Lim Kit Siang, who was also detained under Ops Lalang, likewise called for Mahathir to apologise to all those detained in Operation Lalang under the ISA as he could not shirk responsibility for the dragnet, especially as he was Home Minister at the time:
“Former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad was reported in the media as denying that he was responsible for the infamous Operation Lalang in 1987, where 106 persons were detained under the draconian detention-without-trial Internal Security Act for him to consolidate political control and power in government, Umno and Barisan Nasional. Nanyang Siang Pau today even quoted Mahathir as disclaiming that he was Home Minister at the time of Operation Lalang, claiming that at the time he was in China and the Home Minister was one ‘Musa.’
“Mahathir was talking rubbish. He is not only guilty of selective amnesia when it suits him, as when he told the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Lingam Videotape scandal that he could not remember anything about the incidents related to the scandal of the fixing of judicial appointments, he has now shown that he is capable of telling downright lies to disclaim responsibility for the human rights violations perpetrated during his time as Prime Minister and Home Minister.
“Mahathir can tell lies without batting an eyelid about the history of his premiership but he cannot change history at his whim and fancy. It is indisputable that Mahathir was the Home Minister during the Operation Lalang crackdown in 1987 and there was no ‘Musa” at the time acting as Home Minister.
“It is most unworthy, and even cowardly, of Mahathir to deny that he was responsible for the most infamous violation of human rights, that is the Operation Lalang ISA crackdown in 1987, made doubly worse by his attempt to even deny that he was Home Minister.”
Show us you are a born-again democrat, Tun
Whether an autocrat who has squandered close to RM100 billion of the nation’s wealth (according to former Asian Wall Street Journal editor, the late Barry Wain in his book Malaysian Maverick) can get away with impunity is a separate question.
On this 29th anniversary of Operation Lalang, an anniversary during which I still reflect on the 445 days of my life that were cynically stolen by Mahathir, I would hope for some sign of contrition by our supposedly born-again democrat, a democrat who recently signed the Citizens’ Declaration expressing “concern over the deteriorating political, economic and social situation in the country…”
Kua Kia Soong is Adviser to Suaram.