By Kee Thuan Chye
1 November 2012
Last week, we marked the 25th anniversary of Operasi Lalang, that black day in our history that changed our country for the worst.
Like May 13, 1969, it was a Malaysian tragedy. And after all these years, we have yet to fully recover from it.
The beneficiaries of that notorious official move on Oct 27, 1987, to detain 106 Malaysians under the Internal Security Act (ISA) were – as journalist uppercaise has rightly pointed out in his blog – the then prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, and Umno.
Or, to be precise, Mahathir’s Umno Baru, which came about after the original Umno was declared illegal by the High Court in February 1988.
The year before, Mahathir was under siege as president of the party. The party was split – into Team A and Team B. And in April, he was challenged for the presidency by Tengku Razaleigh.
Members had come to dispute Mahathir’s leadership style. Team B, led by Razaleigh, criticised Mahathir for not consulting other Umno and Barisan Nasional (BN) leaders before making decisions.
As prime minister, he put his own people in charge of key operations. His privatisation schemes were given to his cronies. Team B pointed out that the New Economic Policy had failed to benefit poor Malays. Now, in hindsight, it’s even clearer to us why that was so.
Team B made an impact, and Mahathir won the election by polling 761 votes against Razaleigh’s 718, scraping through by a mere 43 votes.
Many people actually expected Razaleigh to win, so the suspicion of election-fixing arose. But Razaleigh accepted defeat and promised to support Mahathir if the latter did not embark on a witchhunt.
Of course, now that we know from hindsight the kind of man Mahathir is, it comes as no surprise that he embarked on a witchhunt anyway. He removed all Team B supporters from his Cabinet, and did the same at state and local government levels.
In June, a group of Umno members who came to be known as “the Umno 11” filed a suit to have the Umno elections declared illegal because they had found invalid voters among the delegates. These delegates were allegedly from Umno branches that had not been approved by the Registrar of Societies.
The court asked both sides to settle the issue themselves, but an amicable solution was not reached. So on Oct 19, the Umno 11 said it would press on with its legal action.
At the time, the tensions within Umno were being compounded by racial tensions outside. Chinese educationists had been upset by the Education Ministry’s appointing of non-Chinese-educated principals and senior assistants for Chinese schools. The custodians of Chinese education, Dong Jiao Zong – abetted by political parties like the MCA, Gerakan and the DAP – staged a protest against the move.
It immediately provoked a counter-rally by Umno Youth at which about 10,000 people turned up. This was the event at which Najib Razak, then the Umno Youth chief, famously unsheathed a keris and reportedly vowed that it would be bathed in Chinese blood.
The authorities seized on this potentially explosive situation – and the somewhat random act of an army private running amok in Chow Kit shooting his M16 at people – as a pretext to swoop down on “troublemakers”.
Operasi Lalang resulted in conveniently shutting away a good number of Opposition politicians and civil society activists who had been critical of the Government.
I use the words “pretext” and “conveniently” because most of those detained were not at all involved in the Dong Jiao Zong protest or the Umno Youth counter-rally.
Among them were members of Christian groups, environmentalists and anti-logging natives of Sarawak, and a Malay Christian convert. Why were they taken in?
Forty of the 106 even had their detentions extended by Mahathir for two years. They included DAP deputy chairman Karpal Singh, Opposition Leader Lim Kit Siang and his son Guan Eng, some PAS members and numerous NGO activists.
On the other hand, the leaders of the Umno Youth rally who were brandishing banners that called for Chinese blood and proclaimed “May 13 has begun” were untouched. Why were they not taken in?
The Government also conveniently shut down three newspapers that had been critical of it. The Star, Watan and Sin Chew Jit Poh had their publishing permits suspended.
Purwaiz Alam, who was a journalist at The Star during its suspension, recalls in uppercaise’s blog the months of uncertainty he experienced, surviving on one-third pay and waiting anxiously for the newspaper to be forgiven. At one point, he and his wife had to sell their video cassette recorder just to get some extra cash.
“But on the first day that The Star re-opened,” he writes, “most of us knew things would never be the same any more. The journalism that we had learnt and knew well would wither away soon enough. As the months went by, it became obvious that my job (and those of hundreds of others) had been saved at a price, a very hefty price.”
His grim conclusion: “All of us are still paying for it 25 years later.”
Effectively, Operasi Lalang heralded the culture of fear that strangulated Malaysians for at least two decades.
It also provided the environment for Mahathir to rule in an even more authoritarian manner. He had scared off his opponents and silenced his critics, so now he was free to do what he wished.
He amended the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) to keep newspapers under tighter control.
He amended the Police Act to restrict our right to free assembly, making a police permit mandatory for public gatherings.
According to the book Malaysian Maverick by Barry Wain, Mahathir said his amendments were aimed at those who abused the Government’s “liberal attitude”.
“Being liberal to them is like offering a flower to a monkey,” Mahathir said, disdainfully. “The monkeys would rather tear the flower apart than appreciate its beauty.”
In 1988, as a result of his unhappiness over a few court judgements that favoured natural justice over his administration’s convenience, he amended the Federal Constitution to remove the independence of the judiciary.
There is much more to say about how Mahathir tampered with our sacred institutions in the years after Operasi Lalang, but it would take a book to cover it all.
Some people think another tragedy like Operasi Lalang could happen again – and not too far in the future. Especially when, as journalist Charles Chan who lived through the dark days of The Star’s suspension puts it, “desperate politicians face loss of power that opens the doors to prosecution for their abuses of power, corruption, etc”.
To prepare ourselves for such a contingency, we need to ask ourselves how we would respond if it should happen. Should we be docile like we were in 1987 or should we stand up for our rights?
What’s paramount is that we should find ways of preventing such tragedies in future.
First, we should not allow a despot to rise again. At the first sign of such a creature emerging, we should vote him out instead of supporting him for more than two decades.
Concomitant with that, we should not allow any ruling party the luxury of a two-thirds majority in Parliament so that they can amend the Constitution anyhow they like.
We should also be vigilant in not allowing any of the despot’s proxies to climb to the top.
Second, we must ensure that checks and balances are firmly in place, like a strong civil society – and, certainly, the reinstatement of the separation of powers among the executive, the legislative and the judiciary engraved in our Constitution. This means independence must be returned to the judiciary.
Third, we must repeal all laws that are against the spirit of democracy, like the PPPA, the Official Secrets Act, the Sedition Act (soon to be called the sweet-sounding National Harmony Act) and the Universities and University Colleges Act.
There is no ISA now but in its place is the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012. This has to go. We have enough laws to take care of terrorist threats.
Fourth, we must get rid of our feudal mentality. This perpetuates a culture of blind subservience to the leader and a culture of sycophancy, both of which empower the leader even more. Furthermore, ascent to leadership should be based on merit, not on an individual’s ability to suck up to the boss.
Fifth, Operasi Lalang is a tragedy that needs to be told and re-told so that those who don’t know about its ramifications may understand why Malaysia is in the mess it’s in. Those who have lived through that terrible day and its aftermath need to tell their children and grandchildren the real story about what happened and condemn the abuse of power and dictatorial rule.
Our first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, gave us a lead when he said right after Operasi Lalang: “It’s not a question of the Chinese against the Government but of his own party, Umno, who are against him.”
The real story of Operasi Lalang is not about a potential racial war erupting. It is about a despot who wanted to hang on to power, shut out all opposition, and run the country to his own advantage.
That’s what everyone should know.
* Kee Thuan Chye is the author of the bestselling book No More Bullshit, Please, We’re All Malaysians, available in bookstores together with its Malay translation, Jangan Kelentong Lagi, Kita Semua Orang Malaysia.