Malaysia’s draconian laws used to suppress opponents

Empowering Weak & Oppressed

Ahmet Aslan

Shawwal 03, 1432 2011-09-01

News & Analysis

by Ahmet Aslan (News & Analysis, Crescent International Vol. 40, No. 7, Shawwal, 1432)

The Islamic awakening sweeping the Muslim East has affected many parts of the world. Malaysia may not be the most likely place to experience revolutionary change of Middle Eastern proportions, but it nonetheless has not remained unaffected.

The Islamic awakening sweeping the Muslim East has affected many parts of the world. Malaysia may not be the most likely place to experience revolutionary change of Middle Eastern proportions, but it nonetheless has not remained unaffected. In early July, Malaysia witnessed one of the biggest demonstrations in the country for years. Bersih, a coalition of NGOs, brought out tens of thousands of people in Kuala Lumpur to protest election laws and democratic reforms ahead of the polls in 2013. It is not known what effect the demonstrations will ultimately have on government policy but they provided a glimpse into the problems rooted in Malaysia’s social, economic and political structure.

The Islamic awakening sweeping the Muslim East has affected many parts of the world.

Since the country gained independence from Britain in 1957 Malaysia has been ruled by the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the largest coalition of political parties in Malaysia. The party represents ethnic Malays, which make up 50% of the population, and promotes Malay nationalism and dominance. Some of the main features of its policy are to protect Malay culture and the religion of Islam. Some policies are discriminatory in essence and have alienated ethnic Chinese (24%), Indians (7% and other ethnic minorities.

The party has been implementing the policy of “Bumiputra” (sons of the soil) that severely discriminates against Chinese and Indians, in favour of the Malay majority in university admissions, jobs, shares in companies, bank credits, home mortgages, government contracts, etc. The privileges granted to Malays result in corruption as some take bribes by selling such rights to other ethnic groups. The system appears Muslim friendly as it gives privileges to the Malay population who are predominantly Muslims; however, the system also discriminates against those Muslims who are not in line with official policies.

The Malaysian government has been repressing Muslims who do not comply with their officially sanctioned version of Islam. Groups such as Parti Islam SeMalaysia (Islamic Party of Malaysia), Malaysia’s largest Islamist opposition party, Jemaah Islamiyah (Islamic Community), Shi‘is and foreign individuals have been targeted by security services and many have suffered under draconian anti-terrorism laws. Malaysia’s Internal Security Act (ISA) which was enacted in 1960 was used as a handy tool to suppress political opponents and critics of UMNO’s dominance of Malaysian politics.

The ISA gives the government vast powers to detain “suspects” for prolonged periods without charge and bars judicial review of detentions. Section 73 (1) of the Internal Security Act 1960 states that: “Any police officer may without warrant arrest and detain pending enquiries any person in respect of whom he has reason to believe that there are grounds which would justify his detention under section 8; and that he has acted or is about to act or is likely to act in any manner prejudicial to the security of Malaysia or any part thereof or to maintenance of essential services therein or to the economic life thereof.”

According to the law, the police can hold “suspects” for up to 60 days without a warrant. After this detention period, section 8 of the ISA states that the Home Secretary might extend the detention period for two years which can be renewed for two-year periods indefinitely.

The ISA is designed as a form of “preventive” detention that enables the government to detain individuals without charge or trial, denying them the most basic process rights. According to a Human Rights Watch (HRW) report “ISA detainees have no effective recourse to challenge their detention because the law prevents the courts from reviewing the merits of ISA detentions. Although the law allows judicial review of the procedural requirements for detention, Malaysian courts routinely dismiss habeas corpus petitions challenging ISA detentions.”1

Since 1960, the law has been (mis)used by the ruling UMNO coalition to silence critics, resulting in the detention of more than 10,000 people. Many individuals arrested under the ISA have spent long terms in detention camps and undergone torture and other inhumane treatment. In 1987, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed used the ISA to detain his political opponents and eventually eliminate them. Mahathir also used the ISA in 1998 to arrest the rising politician, then Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and six of his political supporters. Further, in April 2001, Ezam Mohamed Noor, senior figure in the opposition Keadilan (National Justice) party and nine other leading politicians were arrested under the ISA.2

Mat Sah bin Mohammed Satray’s case offers a striking example of how the ISA is misused to ruin people’s lives. Mat Sah was an observing Muslim who resided in Kuala Lumpur. He was arrested on April 18, 2002. Security forces initially alleged that he was a member of Kumpulan Militan Malaysia (KMM), a militant group operating in Malaysia. However, the charges were later dropped and he was accused of being a member of the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) movement. Mat Sah has always denied his links to the JI and the security services could not establish his alleged membership in the organization. He was held in the notorious Kamunting Detention Centre in Perak under the ISA. Mat Sah was held in solitary confinement for five years, without charge or trial, and finally released on September 15 after seven years and five months of detention. Similar to other detainees held in Kamunting Detention Centre, Mat Sah was subjected to inhumane and degrading treatment that was documented in the IHRC report, Malaysia’s Internal Security Act (ISA) and Detainees (2007).

After detailed research on the ISA, HRW (2004) stated: “While in detention, detainees report that they have been mistreated, some subjected to sexual humiliation, others slapped and kicked. All were held incommunicado for several weeks after they were first detained. Family members report that detainees showed signs of more extensive physical abuse when they first were able to meet with them.”

Some of the most recent victims of the ISA were Shi‘i Muslims who had gathered to commemorate ‘Ashura, the martyrdom ceremony of Imam Husayn (pbuh). On December 16, 2010, Selangor Islamic Affairs Department (JAIS) raided an Islamic centre used by the Shi‘is and arrested some 200 participants including a local scholar and a visiting scholar from Iran. Some of those detained were charged under ISA and others under Article 12(c) of the Selangor Syariah Crimes Enactment 1995 which prohibits being involved in, learning or propagating Shi‘i teachings. Only Sunni Islam is allowed in Malaysia, Shi‘ism along with other “non-approved” madhhabs are considered to be deviant. The detainees were later released; the two Islamic scholars were released on bail and are being tried.

Malaysia has been proud of its multi-cultural society that accommodates different cultures, races and religions. However, existing laws and practices show that the so-called multiculturalism remains only on paper and the entire system is built on injustice, intolerance and discrimination. The “Arab Spring” has shown us that political systems that are promoting these iniquities will eventually be challenged by their victims and it would not be surprising if the Malaysian political system eventually faces the same fate.

  1. Detained Without Trial: Abuse of Internal Security Act Detainees in Malaysia. Human Rights Watch, 2005
  2. Briefing: Anti-Terrorism Legislation in South East Asia. Islamic Human Rights Commission, 2004
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