Twenty-eight years and eight days ago…

— Lee Yew Meng
Malay Mail Online
November 4, 2015

NOV 4 — On Oct 27, 1987, The Star managing director Datuk Steven Tan told his top management that the newspaper’s publishing permit had been withdrawn with immediate effect. The letter was hand-delivered earlier during a downpour.

The front page on that day read: “DETAINED — 19 picked up in swoop”. The masthead was in black, dramatising the events of the previous day.

I have no recollection of what was discussed during that meeting. Stuck in my head was: “Hey, this is ridiculous. Our chairman is Tunku Abdul Rahman (our first prime minister) and we are owned by MCA, a senior coalition partner in the government.”

All employees were on a quarter-month’s pay henceforth. It was a double whammy for couples on The Star’s payroll.

As the commercial head, my task was to negotiate bulk purchase deals with food and beverage manufacturers. Those assigned specific duties received an additional RM12.50 each working day.

Operation Lalang

The backdrop and build-up scenario to the suspension were like an epic Hollywood movie.

At Umno’s annual general meeting (AGM) in April 1987, the challenger Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah secured 718 votes against Datuk Seri (now Tun) Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s 761 for the president’s post. The 43-vote margin wasn’t good, considering that Mahathir had the advantage of incumbency for six years and had received several times more nominations than Tengku Razaleigh.

Datuk (now Tun) Musa Hitam had teamed up with Tengku Razaleigh to contest the deputy president post he resigned from abruptly together with his deputy prime ministership just a year earlier. Musa, touted as “the best PM Malaysia never had”, retired for good after this colossal battle.

In early September, about 100 non-Chinese educated headmasters and senior assistants were assigned to SJKCs, causing a major uproar among the Chinese community. Dong Jiao Zong organised a protest rally supported by MCA, Gerakan, DAP and major Chinese NGOs at the Hainanese Association Hall in Thean Hou Temple. Angry words were thrown about, including a proposal for a three-day school closure. Umno Youth countered with the infamous TPCA stadium (now known as Stadium Raja Muda) rally where real ugly threats were reported.

MCA deputy president and labour minister Lee Kim Sai was persuaded to go overseas “for a rest” after famously retorting that all communities were “pendatang” at one time. He was stripped of his Selangor Datukship.

In the midst of all these events, a soldier went on a shooting spree in Chow Kit on Oct 20, killing one and injuring two others. It caused serious panic for some hours.

Private Adam Jaafar surrendered shortly after to his commanding general.

On Oct 26, arrests under Operation Lallang started. Eventually, around 110 people were detained, some for up to two years. I believe Lim Kit Siang obtained his LLB during his detention.

Meanwhile, the Umno AGM results were disputed. Twelve (one withdrew later) party members filed a lawsuit to void the election results and called for fresh ones because they claimed 78 voting delegates came from branches not registered with the Registrar of Societies (ROS).

The High Court dismissed the suit of the Umno 11, invoking Article 41 of the Societies Act, which stated that a society automatically becomes unlawful if any of its branches was not registered with the ROS. Their subsequent appeal was rejected.

Mahathir sought and obtained the registration of Umno Baru and transferred all the assets from the unlawful Umno to the new vehicle.

Then, the judicial crisis of 1988 followed. The Lord President lost his job and five Supreme Court judges were suspended. Eventually, two were removed and three reinstated.

The immediate aftermath and the questions

The Star reappeared on March 26, 1988. By 1991, its average daily copy sales were on par with New Straits Times (NST), when it was only hovering at 60 per cent of NST’s before Operation Lallang. It continued to surge and has been way ahead of the competition for over 20 years.

Sin Chew Daily, which was one of the half dozen supporting acts in the Chinese newspaper category, also became a runaway leader. The Bahasa Malaysia weekly, Watan, which made up the trio of newspapers suspended, either never reopened or folded up shortly after.

I can still vividly recall looking out my window at the gardener watering the plants and asked “what did he do wrong”? Why did the publishing permit have to be withdrawn and cause so much misery to so many? Ninety nine per cent of the employees had nothing to do with the editorial direction. The word, “kejam” or cruel, was the only description appropriate for the revocation of the permit.

On the incarcerations of so many in Kamunting — they acted out the script most unsuspectingly (or naively?), and helped provide the reasons for their detentions. What a lark!

The High Court’s decision in declaring Umno an unlawful society — was it just?

How can sending 100 headmasters and senior assistants who are not Chinese-educated to Chinese schools be rational? But if intended with mischief, it was a rip-roaring success. It caused many to be detained, including the legendary Chinese educationist, Lim Fong Seng.

Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim was the education minister from 1986 to 1990.

Prior to the judicial crisis in 1988, we heard serious rumblings from the executive about court interpretations, which went against the intent of the authorities.

Checks and balances and the concept of separation of powers were obviously deemed nuisances.


I think the nation is still reeling from the events 28 years and eight days ago. Are you? I certainly am.

My incurable positive thinking and the fondness for my country insists that the script for this “epic movie” is still a work-in-progress.

  1. #1 by Bigjoe on Thursday, 5 November 2015 - 10:11 am

    If you think about it Najib’s current willfulness is very similar to Mahathir’s determination during that period. Opposition to him came from many sides again and again, and from within his party, top and grassroot, outside his party and he managed to take them on one at a time and came out on top..

    What Najib has for him is more institutional control and more money at his disposal. He also have Hadi’s PAS working for him and Sarawak and Sabah are fixed deposits and BN parties are inconsequential.

    It appears that Hadi’s PAS can be neutralized and if they can move the needle enough in Sarawak and Sabah, its just possible the difficult to imagine for many decades can happen..

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