Does Malaysia Need the ISA?

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak is having a difficult time balancing security needs with civil rights.

Two months since Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak announced the repeal of the infamous Internal Security Act (ISA), which allowed detention without trial, Home Minister Hishamuddin Hussien has said that the law replacing the ISA will have similar provisions. The home minister has justified the move by drawing parallels with the U.S. Patriot Act and Britain’s Terrorism Act, but this argument hasn’t been enough to assuage the anger of the country’s middle class.

The original ISA has its roots in the Emergency Ordinance 1948, which was enacted by the British to combat insurgency and communism. Even after Malaysia (then Malaya) received its independence from Britain, the fight against communism continued, and the ISA was passed in 1960 with this ideological conflict in mind.

Fast forward to the 1980s, and the threat of communism was dwindling. Meanwhile, Malaysia had a growing number of aspiring politicians and social activists. The problem for the government was that many of the causes and beliefs these activists backed ran counter to the government stance of the day. In the midst of a volatile political climate, Operasi Lalang was carried out, and more than 100 opposition leaders and social activists were arrested under the ISA.  As time went on, the executive increasingly turned to the act as a way of ensuring its stranglehold on the nation’s politics. 

On September 15 of this year, a day before Malaysia Day, Najib announced the repeal of the draconian act. Yet while many Malaysians were elated, some political pundits expressed reservations over whether the government would really abandon such a useful tool. As a result, few people were surprised by the detention provisions in the new act, which some have described as old wine in new bottle.

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Still, the government position does have some logic. When Hishamuddin compared the ISA with the Patriot Act, he clearly had the threat of terrorism in mind. This month, 13 suspected Jemaah Islamiyah members were detained under the ISA in Tawau, Sabah.  While the threat of terrorism in Malaysia today may not seem as great as the threat of communism back in the 1950s and 1960s, it would be unwise to completely disregard the need for the ISA, which ultimately empowers security agencies to move quickly to thwart terrorist activities.

At the same time, though, the ruling government is clearly facing mounting pressure from domestic opposition parties and civil society movements who see the ISA as a political tool for repressing opponents and a significant barrier to ensuring civil liberties.  Civil society movements have shown a growing ability to mobilize public opinion behind an issue, and the government can’t afford to ignore their views. Najib is therefore left with the significant challenge of ensuring national security while proving his is the reformer he claims to be.

Moving forward, the most immediate question that needs to be addressed is what are the provisions of the new law that’s going to replace the ISA, and how is it going to be implemented? If detention without trial is allowed, how long can such detentions last? If the ISA is really meant to contain terrorism, perhaps providing a clearer definition to the public of what constitutes terrorism may help. Clearly, there’s no single, unifying incarnation of terrorism. But without providing some definition, there’s significant room to abuse the ISA.

With a more vibrant civil society and growing access to alternative news sources, middle class Malaysians are more politically astute than ever. Many are growing restless over Najib’s reforms, believing that his administration is heavy on rhetoric, but light on substance. The ISA issue will therefore be a test for Najib that could cost him the mandate he has from middle class Malaysians. Winning back their confidence will be no easy task.

Choong Pui Yee is a Research Analyst with the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University where she is attached to the Malaysia Program.