Ever wonder what led to the gleaming sidewalks and streets of Malaysia
? Ever wonder why there is no “Op Ed” section in the daily Kaula Lampurian? Ever wonder why the radio stations in this bi-island nation don’t take calls from listeners? ATO let's us in the the secrets
KUALA LUMPUR - Behind the gleaming skyscrapers and the wide, manicured highways with luxury cars gliding by - the symbols of Malaysia's vaunted economic success - lurks what one rights activist calls the "White Terror".
The preferred weapon of this terror is the Internal Security Act (ISA), a law passed in 1960, which provides for indefinite detention without trial. Ostensibly enacted to fight communist insurgents it has since been used against all and sundry.
The common denominator is dissent against the established status quo and any challenge to the official pecking order of society.
The ISA is frequently used against forgers, counterfeiters, Islamists, political opponents and even people who campaign to abolish the ISA itself.
It has claimed a steady stream of victims since 1960. Many survivors gathered this week to recount the horror they suffered and, united with NGOs and opposition parties, renewed their determination to force the repeal of this draconian law.
They recounted stories of horror - arrests in the dead of the night, interrogation for days on end, beatings and torture, and severe psychological pressure to recant, confess and join political parties in the government.
This week marks the 45th anniversary of the ISA, a convenient reference point for victims and campaigners to press for the repeal of the law that has jailed more than 3,500 since 1960.
Many of the ISA's victims were trade unionists fighting for a fairer wage and the right to form unions in free trade zones. Others were student leaders, researchers, academics, journalists, political activists, religious groups and NGO activists.
"I was stripped naked for most of the time I was interrogated," one victim recounted. "I was interrogated endlessly and police officers turned up the air conditioner making the cell freezing cold. They booed me on my genitals, sneered at me and threatened that I would become impotent after they had finished with me."
Police also threatened to rape his girlfriend if he did not confess, he said. "They frequently punched, kicked and beat with a broomstick."
Patricia Lourdes Irene, 54, who was held for a year in 1987, said she was threatened with rape if she did not cooperate. "They said they had raped many times before and I believed them - it was scary," she said. "It is just you and them in a cell, you have everything stacked against you."
Some inmates developed schizophrenia and never recovered, and many others suffer constant nightmares, testified Ban Ah Kam, 59, who was held for 10 years from 1968.
Some were held 60 days, the minimum period, while others were held for a decade or more. There is no maximum period prescribed for detention. Each detention order by the Interior Minister is for two years and is renewable indefinitely for two-year periods. One detainee, Loh Meng Liong, was held for 16 years before he was freed in 1982.
"The ISA has been kept in use all this time mainly because it is a very convenient tool at the disposal of the ruling coalition," said Kua Kia Soong, director of the Malaysian Peoples Voice or SUARAM, a leading human-rights organization.
"It has served as an instrument of terror of the state and used consistently against dissidents who have defended the democratic and human rights of the Malaysian people."
Former ISA detainee Tian Chua, who is now information chief of the National Justice Party (NJP) recalled: "We were routinely tortured during interrogations, stripped naked, beaten with broomsticks and threatened with rape."
The NJP is led by opposition icon Anwar Ibrahim, himself detained under the ISA twice, once as a student activist protesting against poverty and again in 1998 when he went against then prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, accusing him of corruption and cronyism.
As part of the campaign to end the ISA, the former detainees and their supporters gathered at the state-funded Malaysian Human Rights Commission or SUHAKAM to protest, condemn the act and push for its repeal.
"The ISA is a license to torture," Kua said. "Malaysia cannot call itself a democratic country while retaining a law that permits gross violation of human rights."
Later in a news statement, Kua demanded the government investigate the numerous claims of torture and beatings during detention and also bring the perpetrators to justice.
"All human beings who were disgusted at the torture and humiliation of the detainees at Abu Ghraib must open their eyes to the reality of the ISA," he said referring to the jail in Iraq where US abuse of Iraqi prisoners sparked a storm of international protest. "The government either charges detainees in an open court or else releases them immediately and without any condition," he said.
SUHAKAM has urged repeal of the ISA several times. "Detention without trial is an extreme form of detention," SUHAKAM commissioner Siva Subramanian said. "It denies a person the right to liberty, the right to appear in a public trial and the right to assume innocence until proven guilty."
Subramanian admitted that the government seemed increasingly keen on using the ISA - even in simple cases like forgery, which would normally have been dealt with in the courts.
The government has consistently maintained that the ISA is the single most effective legislation to maintain racial peace and religious freedom, and lately to keep terrorists at bay.
About 100 people accused of being members of the banned Jemaah Islamiah militant organization have been detained since 2000. Many of them say they are innocent of the charges.
Several individuals have, however, confessed, over national television, to being members of the group blamed for the Bali bomb blast and other atrocities in Indonesia, and have been rehabilitated and released. But their movements are severely restricted.
The judiciary has a mixed and contradictory record with regard to the ISA, which legal experts say is illegal and violates the federal constitution. Most judges, however, uphold the law as valid because it was passed by parliament.
SUHAKAM must know that the ISA gives the Special Branch a license to torture. From its inception, ISA detentions have gone hand-in-hand with torture of detainees.
This week brought together ISA detainees from as far back as 1960s. Every decade has grisly tales of torture and dark deeds by the Malaysian Special Branch, which are the scandalous side of the motto Malaysia Boleh (Malaysia Can).
The biggest scandal of all is that, to date, none of these torturers have been brought to justice, nor have deterrent sentences been passed on them.
A recent Royal Commission on the Malaysian Police also avoided confronting this most vital subject - the white terror of the ISA over any form of dissent.
As part of the campaign to repeal the ISA, SUARAM has demanded that the government investigate all cases of torture, make public the findings and charge the perpetrators in court.
The voluntary groups would like to see the abolition of the ISA and all forms of detention without trial and all detainees either tried in an open court or released immediately and unconditionally.
SUARAM said it was of prime importance to restore the independence of the judiciary to curb abuses of power by the police. Finally, SUARAM has urged the Malaysian government to ratify the international convention against torture and the covenants on civil and political rights.