Saturday, October 4, 2008

Chandra Muzaffar: ABOLISH ISA !

Laws alone, whether punitive or preventive, cannot combat communalism. This is a pertinent point to make in view of the recent detention under the ISA of three individuals who were connected in one way or another with situations and circumstances which had communal overtones. From past examples we know that individuals who have been detained under the ISA for “causing ethnic and religious tensions” have seldom changed their positions or attitudes on ethnic issues after their release. Similarly, the law has not been able to prevent the outbreak of ethnic riots such as ‘May 13th’ or the Kampong Medan incident in 2001.

If we have succeeded in maintaining a certain degree of inter-ethnic peace over the years it is not because of the ISA per se. Political power sharing, some scope for dissent, economic growth with equity, a workable public delivery system, and acceptance of religious and cultural diversity have been far more important factors. Rather than apply the ISA, it is the underlying causes of ethnic unhappiness that we should address.

In any case, the ISA, whatever its purported goals, is an unjust law. Since I entered public life in the early seventies, I have consistently advocated its abolition. It denies a human being a fundamental human right: the right to a fair trial. It bestows unfettered powers upon the Executive. It is a law which in its application has been abused right from the outset. If the ISA was meant to fight communist terrorists when it was re-enacted in 1960, how does one explain the detention of the late Burhannuddin al-Helmi or the late Abdul Aziz Ishak during the Tunku’s administration?

It is encouraging to see that more and more people are now coming out against the ISA. When Anwar was arrested under the ISA in 1998, many ordinary Malays for the first time began to oppose the ISA. After Hindraf leaders were incarcerated under the ISA, a significant segment of the Indian community has started to criticize the law. The brief detention of a Chinese journalist who had merely reported a communal speech by a Malay politician that had hurt the Chinese has now triggered widespread condemnation of the ISA within the community. These episodes show how powerful the ethnic emotion is in our country and how intimately linked it is to human rights issues.

It is important to sustain the present momentum against the ISA. We should continue to campaign not only for the release of all those who are now in detention in Kamunting but also for the abolition of the law before it attains its fiftieth birthday!

(Part of Media Statement on October 3, 2008)

Professor Chandra Muzaffar is a political scientist who has authored a number of books on Malaysian politics and society. He is also the president of JUST.

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