IT’S easy to be swept away in the hyped-up euphoria surrounding Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s 100 days in office.
The Star, for example, celebrated Najib’s 11 gifts to the rakyat, announced on 11 July 2009, with a blown-up picture of Najib occupying more than half its front page in its 12 July publication. Other traditional media printed special pullout editions to mark the prime minister’s first three months in office. These were complete with glowing photos of our chief administrator, and were accompanied by full-page congratulatory advertisements.
Front page of The Star on 12 July 2009
But surely there are missing parts of the puzzle that are being shaded under the party baubles, buntings and balloons. Najib’s administration may be successful in implementing populist economic measures that cater to the most basic demands of the majority of Malaysians. But there is a dark side to the party.
More ISA detentions
When Najib first became prime minister, he announced the release of 13 Internal Security Act (ISA) detainees, and a review of the law that allows for indefinite detention without trial.
Many Malaysians were heartened, especially when Najib announced that his actions were meant to demonstrate a government that cares. “The government has the best interests of the people and nation at heart,” Najib said on 4 April 2009, a day after he was sworn into office.
These are powerful words, especially when coupled with the action of releasing detainees who, critically, should not have been detained in the first place without a fair trial.
Still, I had predicted then that unless the government abolished the ISA and other laws in Malaysia that allow for human rights violations, Najib’s rhetoric and actions were but a ploy. After all, other prime ministers before him had done exactly the same thing once they came into office: release detainees, only to later detain others under the ISA.
This is exactly what has already happened under Najib’s administration. According to Suaram statistics, since Najib became prime minister, he has released a total of 28 detainees, including five Hindraf leaders. But guess what, he has also detained four others under the ISA between 7 May and 25 June 2009. They are suspected Jemaah Islamiah (JI) terrorists, namely Mas Selamat Kastari, who was detained on 7 May, and Sulaiman Bukhari, Latif Omar, and a man known only as Samsudin, who were detained on 25 June.
Strategically, it was also on 25 June that Home Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein announced what the government’s review of the ISA would potentially entail. These included a review the ISA’s definition of “threats to national security and public peace”.
“Maybe when the ISA was first enacted in the 1960s, it was the communists. But today, it is militant networks and extremist movements,” Hishammuddin told reporters in Parliament. Uncannily, it seemed as if the minister was already pre-empting any criticisms of the Najib administration for having detained without trial the four suspected JI terrorists.
R Kenghadharan of Hindraf waving to supporters as he was brought out of Kamunting detention centre
on 5 April 2009 (Pic by Raj Kumar, courtesy of theSun)
Apart from that, Hishammuddin’s announcement of government review included a re-examination of the length of detention and the appointment of independent investigators. He said the government was also looking at limiting the number of extension orders that could be issued. These orders allow detainees to be held indefinitely for two-year terms at the minister’s discretion.
What’s nowhere to be found in the list of reforms of the ISA is the removal of the state’s powers to detain without trial. Now, what does that tell us about the Najib administration?
Do we really believe that his is a government that cares? Of course it is. Question is, what exactly does the Najib administration care about? Definitely not respect for human rights. After all, any detention without trial is both cruel and criminal.
It doesn’t matter whether someone is detained under the ISA for an initial 60 days before being sent to Kamunting for two-year terms, as allowed by the ISA now; or if a person was detained for 28 days, as Hishammuddin has suggested. Detention without trial is a form of torture.
Hence, for so long as the Najib administration does nothing to address this aspect of the ISA and other existing laws that allow for detention without trial, what is our government really saying? It is telling the rakyat that it wants to continue having the power to incarcerate and torture individuals, and with taxpayers’ money on top of that.
What else do we, as taxpayers, pay for? We pay for the police force and the Special Branch to prevent and solve crime, conduct surveillance and gather intelligence about suspected criminals, so that individuals like the four JI detainees can be charged in court. But if the laws allow for detention without trial, our intelligence agents are let off the hook from doing what they are paid to do.
Of course, despite all the surveillance and information gathering involved in monitoring such individuals, the least we should expect of our intelligence agents would be evidence of criminal activities. If they can’t provide evidence and are allowed by law to get away with not providing evidence in court, Malaysia is actually condoning a substandard intelligence force — one that apparently can be outsmarted by suspected criminals and terrorists.
As a taxpaying citizen, that makes me wonder why I should continue paying for poor quality service that is not only unaccountable but shows no capacity for improvement.
Taxpayers pay for the police force, but for what?
Other dark spots
The lack of respect for human rights is not the only blight on Najib’s 100-day-old administration. There are other afflictions, including the continuing control of the media and the abuse of police power.
It is understandable why Najib’s approval ratings have improved significantly, according to a poll by the Merdeka Center. It’s hard not to be carried away by the scintillating reports about Najib and his “people-friendly” measures. And for the most part, it’s almost impossible to imagine that the ISA, police abuse, and lack of media freedom could ever directly affect us, our families or communities.
But here’s the truth of the matter: for so long as we don’t demand for our government to change the structures that enable it to legally torture people, control the media, and turn a blind eye to police abuse, we allow it to do so. Hence, even though these may not happen directly to one of us, shouldn’t we fear that it could?
The fact is, ISA detentions, media control and police abuse have already happened under Najib, and continue to happen. If nothing else, that should make us question what the 100-day celebrations were really all about.
If Jacqueline Ann Surin were prime minister, she would have been embarrassed and stricken at the rave media reports about her 100 days in office. She believes that all governments should be held critically accountable, and when the media fail to do that, they fail democracy.