OCT 27 — The collective adversity suffered by the DAP, PAS and civil society leaders in 1987 ironically built the steely resolve for change and the deep camaraderie to see it through.
This day 25 years ago, October 27, 1987, was one of the darkest days in Malaysian history when 106 politicians and social activists were arrested under the Internal Security Act (ISA) in Operation Lalang. Printing permits for three newspapers, namely The Star, Sinchew and Watan, were withdrawn.
The security crackdown that shocked the nation and marked the end of the boisterous, often mistaken as democratic, first phase of Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s leadership that began in 1981. Dr Mahathir succeeded Tun Hussein Oon with a weak base in Umno and virtually no one to trust.
By pitting Musa Hitam against Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah in Umno’s deputy presidential elections of 1981 and 1984, Dr Mahathir bought himself time and space. But the chickens came home to roost by 1987 when Tengku Razaleigh teamed up with Musa to challenge the Dr Mahathir-Ghafar Baba ticket.
The election on April 24 saw Tengku Razaleigh losing to Dr Mahathir by a mere 43 votes, allegedly after a suspicious blackout at the vote-counting centre.
Umno continued to flounder after the party polls with Dr Mahathir’s legitimacy seriously dented. The purging of Team B supporters such as Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, Rais Yatim, Shahrir Samad and Radzi Sheikh Ahmad from the Cabinet and government further de-stabilised the situation.
While Dr Mahathir’s base was weak his style was anything but consultative. Further, the various ideas that he bulldozed were more often than not half-baked, resulting in multiple and major financial scandals in just a few years of his rule. Civil society activism emerged from the more discerning and critical urban populace.
The Islamic revival movement was birthed as the rallying point for those who frowned upon Umno-style get-rich-quick materialism.
Further, Dr Mahathir not only pitted Umno leaders against each other, he was manipulating ethnic sentiments against each other. In October 1987, the Chinese educationist cause mobilised against a policy of placing teachers who had no proficiency in Mandarin to head Chinese schools. Umno Youth was counter-mobilised to whip up Malay sentiment.
Between the April Umno election and October, the Mahathir government drifted purposelessly while his party opponents started a permanent campaign to remove Dr Mahathir in the next party election due in three years’ time.
The rift was felt. Mercury rose.
On October 18, one Private Adam ran amok in Chow Kit with an M16 rifle as Umno Youth was mobilising for a November 1 show of force.
Dr Mahathir seized the timely excuse. On October 27, Ops Lalang was launched to arrest his fiercest external critics including the then Leader of the Opposition Lim Kit Siang and 16 DAP elected reps. Not only Dr Mahathir did paralyse the opposition, he terrified the nation and, more importantly, his Umno opponents.
(In the same way on a smaller scale, the arrest of the Reformasi activists in April 2001 was meant to revive Dr Mahathir’s authority after his administration was shaken for half a year, if not longer, after the shocking defeat at the multiethnic Lunas by-election on November 29, 2000.)
A quarter of a century later, as we look back at Dr Mahathir’s mass detention camp of 1987 while on the cusp a possible change of government, there is a sense of poetic justice that Operation Lalang “united” Barisan Nasional’s opponents and gave them a steely resolve to oppose like never before.
Lim Guan Eng, Mat Sabu and many others were young activists at a time when opposition parties and movements were against Barisan Nasional for very different reasons, and often contradictory causes.
But in Kamunting, whatever their causes, they were all behind bars as human beings and as Malaysians for an extended period. They came to realise that Barisan Nasional benefited from mobilising racial and religious tensions to strike a blow against its political foes.
The ruling coalition controls media resources to set an agenda favouring the establishment. With BN’s ample financial resources and armada of draconian laws, the opposition was divided and conquered.
The only way to break through was to find common ground and fight for political democratisation.
This is one of the noteworthy reasons to remember October 1987. That, and the sufferings of those arrested and their families, who have not suffered in vain.
The camaraderie forged in adversity continues to solidify the movement to bring forth a new and better Malaysia for all.
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.