Malaysia: changing the climate of fear
24 Sep 2008

The extension of Raja Petra Kamaruddin’s period of detention to two years is another example of the nefarious uses of Malaysia’s Internal Security Act, says Daniel Chandranayagam. But the reaction of ordinary citizens shows the tide may be turning in favour of free expression

By 11pm on 12 September, the streets of Kuala Lumpur were quieter than the usual Friday night. Just after noon that day, blogger and webmaster of news portal, Malaysia Today, Raja Petra Kamaruddin (RPK), had been detained without trial under the Internal Security Act 1960 (ISA). But many were not surprised. RPK himself told the BBC that he was expecting such an arrest just days before his detention.

Things got more sinister at around 8 in the evening, when Sin Chew journalist Tan Hoon Cheng was also apprehended under the ISA. By the time the last detainee, opposition MP Teresa Kok, was arrested at around 11pm, it was the kind of Friday night Malaysia had not experienced in many years. You could almost hear a pin drop.

Stifling freedom of expression through fear is not an uncommon occurrence in Malaysian history. The arrests of these three dissidents are almost parallel with Dr Mahathir’s Operasi Lalang in 1987, during which 49 dissidents were held without trial under the ISA. And like Operasi Lalang in the 1980s, three newspapers — Sin Chew Daily, the Sun and Suara Keadilan — were recently given show-cause letters (a legal injunction forcing a publication to explain why its licence shouldn’t be revoked) on recent political and social commentaries and opinions published.

In fact, there is a perceived ‘climate of fear’ in Malaysia. While many of the mainstream press is either owned, controlled or has affiliations to the ruling party and the economic elite, the government still constantly reminds the press to report ‘responsibly’ and to even practise self-censorship. Dissenting voices, mostly online, also are habitually reminded to ‘behave or else’. Alternatively, bloggers and online dissidents are discredited as ‘snipers’ or rumour-mongerers. On occasion, legal means or threats by ‘unknown persons’ [see Blogging and Democratization in Malaysia (2008 Strategic Information and Research Development Centre) Tan, Jun-E and Ibrahim, Zawawi] have been used to mute online dissidents.

The three recent detainees were considered champions by many. RPK was arrested because the authorities claim he had published articles on his news portal which tarnished the leadership of the country and insulted the sanctity of Islam. RPK’s troubles do not end there; he also is facing sedition charges as well as defamation law suits.

Tan’s arrest was believed to be in relation to her report on racist remarks made by a member of parliament from the ruling coalition, Ahmad Ismail. This appeared the most feasible reason, especially since Sin Chew Daily, in which Tan’s report was published, was given a show-cause letter by the Home Ministry, asking the publication why the government should not revoke its licence for having reported the racial slur.

Finally, Kok was detained as she had allegedly petitioned mosques to turn down the volume for their calls to prayer. In response, Kok had denied this accusation, with the religious leaders from the mosques confirming that she had done no such thing. This notwithstanding, she was still apprehended. Kok was released six days after her arrest.

Although fear and Malaysians are no strangers, they have been somewhat estranged in the last few years. Many Malaysians hope for a country with new leadership soon, leadership that will be more accountable and transparent. This hope culminated in Anwar Ibrahim’s by-election win in Permatang Pauh in August.

During this by-election, Ahmad Ismail, a Malaysian politician from the ruling coalition, was reported to have made a racial slur. The newspaper which had initially reported his racist remark, Sin Chew Daily, was given a show-cause letter by the Home Ministry, asking the newspaper why the government should not revoke its licence for having published the racial slur. The aftermath of Ahmad’s racist comments, including his defiance, was fanned by some of the mainstream press and the ruling coalition. This brought to some minds the incident of 13 May 1969, Malaysia’s infamous race riots, which witnessed the loss of many lives.

Surprisingly, this time around, Malaysians did not take too kindly to the attempt of instilling fear. By Saturday afternoon, press and bloggers began to voice their outrage. Vigils for the three detainees were arranged. Many civil society groups, opposition leaders and even some politicians within the ruling coalition protested the use of the ISA, and had called for the abolition for the laws on detention without trial.

By noon the following day, Tan was released, just 18 hours after her detention. Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar, was reported to have said that Tan was detained under the ISA for her own good, since she had purportedly received threatening phone calls. This statement caused more public outrage than anything else.

Despite efforts to keep people in a state of fear, for example by telling them that they should not question the government’s decision on detaining the three, mounting pressure to release the detainees continued. De facto Law Minister Zaid Ibrahim resigned from his position as a principled stand on the use of the ISA on civilians.

On 19 September, opposition MP, Teresa Kok was freed, after the authorities determined that she wasn’t a threat to national security. Her release was a surprise to everyone, considering that the authorities had issued a statement that she would be in detention for 28 days.

Unfortunately, the fate of RPK is less encouraging. On 23 September, the Home Minister had signed a detention order of two years for RPK, stating that the police found strong grounds for a detention of two years. However, the Home Minister had stated that there would be reviews after three months and six months. The civil society group Abolish ISA Movement (GMI) stated that this move was designed to frustrate RPK’s bid for freedom. GMI chairman, Syed Ibrahim Syed Noh, was reported to have said, ‘We believe the invoking of section 8 of the ISA for a two-year detention period subsequent to eight days of detention [from a maximum of 60 days under Section 73(1)] is to bypass the habeas corpus hearing of Raja Petra scheduled today.’

This appears to be analogous with a blog post RPK managed to put up while in detention, where he wrote, ‘… I am already facing one sedition charge for the article, “Let’s send the Altanthuya murderers to hell”, plus three charges of criminal defamation… Assuming I win my cases in October and November, they can still hold me under the ISA. Either way I will still remain under detention; heads they win, tails I lose.’

Even so, the spirit of defiance, and sometimes even ridicule, on the recent stifling of these dissenting voices, appear to be predominant among Malaysian urbanites. Perhaps backed by the hope of a new government, or perhaps because they know that there is international pressure not to use the ISA for the peaceful expression of political views, perhaps because even Tun Dr Mahathir, the prime minister under whom the Operasi Lalang was conducted, has spoken up against the ISA detentions, it appears that the 21st century is blowing away the climate of fear which pervaded Malaysia.

Daniel Chandranayagam blogs at

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