The suppression of the congress of Chinese educationists over the khat issue by the police sadly followed the same strategy we have seen repeated over and over during the last few decades.
When the prime minister announced that this privately-convened congress would, in his logic, lead to opposing rallies by Malay groups, it was the cue for Malay supremacists to spring into action and threaten a demonstration against the congress.
The subsequent action by police to stop the congress, where only about 1,000 were expected to attend, was a lame attempt to justify a patently undemocratic action to suppress the right of the Chinese educationists to assemble and to discuss the khat issue.
It exposed the lack of professionalism by the police and worse, it showed they are incapable of judging the character and “risk” posed by assemblies in the country.
Otherwise, it exposes their plain lack of impartiality in guaranteeing the right to freedom of assembly and expression under the Constitution, giving further suspicion of a “deep state” pushing a Malay agenda.
Limits to freedom of expression
This recent issue is rather like that of October 1987 when the education ministry decided to appoint (linguistically) non-qualified senior officials in Chinese-medium primary schools.
This was met with consternation by the Chinese community who did not want the character and standards in these schools to be irreparably altered.
To call upon the parties to resolve the issue, the Chinese associations held a rally at the Thean Hou Temple. This meeting of about 1,000 people was orderly and was attended by leaders of the DAP, MCA and Gerakan as well. There were no complaints from police regarding the conduct of the meeting nor were there any racially offensive speeches by the speakers.
However, in mid-October 1987, Umno Youth staged a rally of several thousands at the Jalan Raja Muda stadium in Kuala Lumpur. At this rally, several leading Umno politicians, including a Cabinet minister (who later became prime minister) made racially provocative statements. Banners bearing slogans such as “Bathe this (kris) in Chinese blood” and the like (see the government’s white paper) were blatantly displayed. Police allowed such a rally to proceed and there were no arrests.
As if this was not enough, Umno decided to call for a 500,000 people rally in Kuala Lumpur for the end of October that year, and the daily rabble rousing was allowed to build up the racial tension in the capital.
Somehow, police must have been confident about being able to control such a huge rally because they did not oppose the organisation of the rally.
This artificially charged atmosphere was the excuse for Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad to unleash Operation Lalang when more than 100 innocent Malaysians (including the author) who had nothing to do with the Thean Hou Temple meeting were arrested and detained under the ISA.
During the interminable interrogations by the Special Branch, their officers tried to justify our detention by saying the congress had offended the Malay supremacists and raised the racial temperature in the country.
My retort to the Special Branch interrogators was: Were the police powerless in that situation? I said, surely the limits to the freedom of expression must lie not only where they trespass upon racial sensitivities but also where police feel confident of keeping law and order.
In the particular incident at the Jalan Raja Muda stadium, the flaunting of racially objectionable banners and speeches clearly showed police had no control unless, of course, they condoned it.
And if they could not manage a few thousand people there, how could they even contemplate allowing the proposed Umno anniversary rally of some 500,000 to take place?
By not disallowing this massive rally plan outright, police had allowed the racial tension to build up and this provided the perfect justification for the ISA swoop on Mahathir’s key dissidents.
APCET was another instance of police partiality
In 1996, police partiality was blatantly visible in their handling of the APCET conference at the Asia Hotel in Kuala Lumpur. On Nov 9 that year, concerned Malaysian NGOs organised the Second Asia-Pacific Conference on East Timor at the hotel to seek a peaceful solution to the East Timor problem – East Timor had been illegally occupied by Indonesian forces and brutally oppressed since 1975.
The then BN government under Mahathir and his deputy Anwar Ibrahim was against the holding of this conference because they did not want to upset the Indonesian government.
We carried on regardless since we believed, as with other justice-loving people around the world, that the East Timorese deserved their right to self-determination. Besides, this conference was held as a private event in a hotel, not outside in a public space.
Soon after the conference began, a 600-strong mob led by the youth wings of the ruling BN stormed the hotel and disrupted the conference, holding the local and foreign participants under “siege”.
Police arrived only an hour later to stop the violence and threats by the mob. They prevented the participants from leaving the conference hall but, after several hours, arrested 59 participants “for not dispersing”. They were locked up under Section 117 of the Criminal Procedure Code.
Twenty-eight were released the following day but the others were given two-day and four-day remand orders by the magistrate. The detainees included NGO activists, students and local and foreign journalists, while the mobsters were let off.
There was clearly connivance between police and the mainly Umno mobsters since the Special Branch operatives were present very early that morning at the hotel; the mobsters numbering a few hundred were allowed to gather and storm and harass the speakers and organisers; the police themselves were uncharacteristically late by an hour to stop them, and to add salt to injury, we the peace-seeking people were thrown in jail while those who threatened the participants with violence were let off scot-free!
No rule of law while the ‘deep state’ dictates
The leaders of those who disrupted our peaceful conference included Saifuddin Nasution Ismail, the current domestic, trade and consumer affairs minister.
We do not expect the prime minister to provide us with any idea of how the so-called “deep state” operates at that level, but I believe Saifuddin and Anwar Ibrahim can illuminate the circumstances and manner by which they operated at the time with the connivance of police and Special Branch to disrupt our APCET conference and to arrest and detain us.
The October 1987 affair and APCET 1996 are but two incidents where we can see the partiality of police. Their inconsistent behaviour has to be read in their collusion with the so-called “deep state” and this collusion has to go back to the May 13 incident and the hidden hands behind the New Economic Policy and the Malay Agenda.
As long as this “deep state” exists to dictate what should be allowed and disallowed in this country, the rule of law will be deemed redundant and there will be no access to the fundamental liberties that are guaranteed in our Constitution.
Kua Kia Soong is the adviser to Suaram.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.