KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia – Lim Kit Siang had just been elected an opposition lawmaker in Malaysia’s Parliament three days earlier when racial riots between ethnic Chinese and Malays broke out on May 13, 1969. The government named Lim a suspected instigator and arrested him a few days later.
No charges were filed. There was no trial, and no guarantee he would ever be freed. The law under which he was arrested – the Internal Security Act – ensured that he could be held indefinitely. For life, if the government so wished.
So it was with great relief and euphoria that Malaysia welcomed the abolition of the law by Prime Minister Najib Razak in 2012. The joy was short-lived. Last week, after hours of debate in Parliament, where Najib’s ruling coalition has a majority, the government passed a new law that critics say is the ISA in another garb.
“Malaysia is regressing into a period of dark ages. This is very, very disturbing,” Lim, 74, said in a recent interview with the Associated Press.
The government says the new Prevention of Terrorism Act, which also allows detention without trial, is aimed at curbing Islamic militancy amid fears that the Islamic State group in the Middle East could be spreading its tentacles to Asian countries with Muslim populations like Malaysia, Indonesia, Philippines, India and Pakistan to find recruits.
Some 92 people have been detained over the past two years for allegedly supporting the Islamic State militant group, including 17 arrested on April 5 for planning attacks in Kuala Lumpur, under another law that does not allow indefinite detention.
About 60 per cent of Malaysia’s 24 million people are Muslims, most of whom have little sympathy for Islamic extremism in the Middle East.
But critics such as Lim fear that the new law is a sign that authoritarian politics is returning to Malaysia to crush dissent as public support for the government erodes rapidly. It fared poorly in the 2008 general elections when for the first time the ruling National Front coalition could not win two-thirds majority in Parliament, coming to power with only a simple majority. In the 2013 election, it won a majority of seats but lost the popular vote.
Najib’s own position in the ruling party is threatened. He is also saddled with allegations of mismanagement at a debt-laden state investment company and efforts to link him to the death of a Mongolian woman nine years ago. He also implemented an unpopular new goods and services tax this month to boost government revenue amid a weaker economy.
“If history is an indicator, then these new laws could potentially be very important tools for the regime to hang on to power before the next elections due in 2018. The new laws can ensure opponents are crippled before they can contest,” political analyst Ibrahim Suffian told the AP.
Najib, who came to power in 2009, says the new law is dedicated to fighting “violent extremism” and has promised it won’t be used against political opponents. During the session to pass the anti-terrorism law, lawmakers also approved amendments to strengthen the Sedition Act including mandatory jail sentences and longer jail term of up to 20 years.
The Sedition Act has been used extensively in recent months, with more than 100 activists, politicians, academicians, journalists and a cartoonist being investigated or charged in court since last year.
Najib went on national television on Thursday to defend the new act.
“If we wait for an incident to occur … the implications would be bad. So before anything happens, we can take action under this new act,” he said.
The ISA and Sedition Act are handovers from the British colonial days designed to fight communists. But after independence in 1957, the laws have been largely used against thousands of trade unionists, student leaders, political activists, religious groups and academicians who opposed the government. Many opposition politicians were among some 10,000 people detained so far under the ISA.
Among them was Lim, who was only 28 when he was arrested after the 1969 race riots. On being told he faced imminent arrest, he fled to Singapore but returned a few days later.
On the flight back, Lim said he wrote on postcards asking his wife to take care of their four children, aged 3 to 8 years, and left them in the seat pocket.
He was detained at the airport and held in solitary confinement for two months, with no access to lawyers or family for the first month.
Police interrogated Lim intensively, up to 24 hours in the first week with no breaks, to try to make him confess to being one of the master-mind of the riots that had killed nearly 200 people.
“Those were the most excruciating moments. I had many moments of despair. They tried to break me down mentally and psychologically. My family didn’t know where I was and I didn’t know whether they were safe,” he said.
Lim was freed Oct 1, 1970, after about 17 months in detention.
The nightmare recurred in 1987 when then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, facing severe political challenges, locked up many political opponents.
Also arrested with Lim was his eldest son, Lim Guan Eng, who was then 27.
“For the first few weeks, we were isolated and not given any information. They gave us a mix of truth and fake news to try and destabilize us,” Lim said. ‘
Just like before, each detainee was kept in a bare cell comprising a single bed with a thin mattress, a table and chair.
He said most detainees became resigned to their fate but a feeling of outrage and anger often surfaced at being held without any recourse in court.
Lim and his son were freed 18 months later. Both are now lawmakers and the younger Lim is the top elected official, the chief minister, of northern Penang state.
“No one should be locked up for their political beliefs. People will be locked up not because they are terrorists but because they are not in the good books of the authority,” Lim said.