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Friday, February 11, 2011

A blackly comic whodunit

By Kee Thuan Chye | FMT

OPERATION Lalang was a black day in Malaysian history. On Oct 27, 1987, 106 people were detained under the ISA in one fell swoop. Most of them were from opposition parties and NGOs. A few newspapers were suspended. It traumatised Malaysians and made them submit to the culture of fear. Some have yet to recover from it.

Whoever initiated Operation Lalang did a strong disservice to the nation. It was a shameful exercise of power. Whatever the reason or reasons may be for invoking the ISA on that occasion on so many individuals, there is no fair justification for doing so.

Perhaps that is why Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who was the prime minister then, has recently come out to say he was not responsible for it. In typical Mahathir fashion – for he is accustomed to blaming others for things he might have done – he blamed it on the police.

In his interview with Tom Plate for the recently published book Doctor M: Operation Malaysia – Conversations with Mahathir Mohamad, he said:

“Well, I would have handled it differently, except that the police wanted to do these things because they say it is necessary …

“I actually met all of the opposition members (beforehand) and assured them that they would not be arrested. And you know what the police did? They arrested them. My credibility is gone.”

It’s almost laughable – in a scary way – to note that the PM had no control over what the police were going to do on such a large scale and with such disastrous effects. How could the police have been given so much power then? Are they still as powerful today? Does that make Malaysia a police state?

Apparently, in 1987, the police did have that power – according to Hanif Omar, who was the inspector-general of police (IGP) at the time. He has just come out to corroborate Mahathir’s finger-pointing the police for launching Operation Lalang.

But more than that, he says he consulted Mahathir before swinging into action, and even though Mahathir was against it, the police took it upon themselves to steam ahead. Whoa! Is this a black comedy? The PM was against it but he had no power to forbid the IGP from carrying it out? Who’s the boss? The CEO of the country or the IGP?

Well … “(The police) were independent, at least during my time,” says Hanif.

Really scary! Are we safe any more? Who protects us from the police? During Operation Lalang, did Mahathir renege on his duty to protect the people?

Well, most of the 106 were released before the 60-day detention order was up, but at least 40 others were authorised to be detained for two years. This authorisation could only have come from the Home Minister. And the Home Minister then was Mahathir.

Wow! The plot thickens! Mahathir tells Plate he was against Operation Lalang and yet he signed the orders to detain at least 40 people for another two years! Where’s the logic? Was Mahathir unaware of what he was signing? Did he have his eyes closed? Did he say, “I don’t want to know la, just let me sign.”?

Racial flare-up

Mahathir certainly has some heavy explaining to do.

He also has to explain the suspension of the three newspapers, namely, The Star, Watan and Sin Chew Jit Poh. Did the police order the suspension too? Of course not! That could only be done by the Home Minister. And who, pray tell, might that be?

By most accounts and from the list of people detained, Operation Lalang seemed targeted at social and political activists critical of the government and mainly opposition politicians. Several of them were DAP and PAS members. But Hanif says the police action was not politically motivated.

To be sure, Operation Lalang was the outcome of the racial flare-up sparked by the controversy over the Education Ministry’s appointment of senior assistants and principals to Chinese schools who were not Chinese-educated, but why were only certain groups and individuals arrested?

Najib Tun Razak, who was then head of Umno Youth, led a huge rally in Kampung Baru, right inside Kuala Lumpur’s Malay heartland, obviously the place to whip up racial sentiments. Did that not qualify for ISA detention? And yet Najib was not taken in.

Umno announced it would hold a rally drawing half a million people. It said the event was to celebrate its 41st anniversary, but given the timing at such a potentially incendiary moment, the real agenda could be something more sinister. And yet no action was taken against those who mooted it.

Mahathir told Plate he assured the opposition politicians that they would not be arrested, but DAP supremo Lim Kit Siang, who was among those served with the two-year detention order, has come out to say he never met Mahathir before the big swoop. Neither did Mahathir give him assurance that he would not be detained.

Who is lying – Kit Siang or Mahathir?

Either way, the big-dollar question still pops up: If Mahathir said he gave that assurance, why then did he sign the order to detain Lim (and six of his DAP comrades) for two years? Again, was Mahathir unaware of what he was signing? Did he have his eyes closed? Did he say, “I don’t want to know la, just let me sign.”?

Disgraceful episode

More so than ever, we can now see how dangerous the ISA can be. Whether it grants power to the police or the Home Minister, it is subject to abuse. Now more than ever, it is clear that such a dangerous law should be abolished. What does the current administration have to say to that?

Ultimately, for Operation Lalang, regardless of who really initiated it, Mahathir, as the PM then, has to take the blame. One can’t imagine him being distressed when the cops took those 106 people in. It was to his advantage. So much so that he signed those orders to detain the unfortunate 40 for two years.

If he indeed allowed the police to call the shots, he clearly reneged on his duty to protect the people.

And what of Hanif? Now that he has “confessed” his role in that disgraceful episode, does he get off scot-free? Or should he be made to face the music for giving Malaysia a black day?

But you know what is really the sad thing to emerge from all this? For all that Mahathir and Hanif have just said, most people who can think and are sensible don’t believe either of them. That’s how low their credibility seems to have sunk.

Mahathir needs to be careful. The more he talks these days, the more disruptive, contradictory, incredulous and machiavellian he appears. Now seen to be more of a divisive than a unifying element, he might just end up becoming the most despised prime minister we’ve ever had.

As they say, history will judge him. And Operation Lalang will loom large in that judgement.

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