(Kuala Lumpur, Monday): We gather tonight on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of Operation Lalang with one objective: that Malaysians should not forget Operation Lalang for it represented the worst setback for democracy and civil society in the nation's history.
The assault on democracy and civil society ten years ago did not end just with the arrest of 106 Malaysians, including opposition leaders - 16 of whom were from the DAP, including MPs and State Assemblymen -trade unionists, social activists, environmentalists, Chinese educationists and religious workers but were followed with a wholesale attack on press freedom with the closure of three newspapers, the independence of the judiciary and the rule of law arising from the sacking of the Lord President and two Federal Court judges, as well as far-reaching amendments to arm the government with a draconian arsenal of laws to fetter the fundamental liberties of Malaysians as guaranteed under the Constitution, like amendments to the Internal Security Act to remove judicial review of Ministerial powers in ordering detention-without-trial; the amendment to the Police Act to automatically disqualify Opposition leaders from their Parliamentary and State Assembly seats or from standing for elective office if they are involved in illegal assemblies of more than three persons; and the introduction of the new-fangled offence under the Printing Presses and Publications Act about "publishing false news" which allows the Attorney-General to practise selective prosecution against the opposition and dissenters.
Democracy has not recovered from the body blows it suffered 10 years ago although all the Operation Lalang detainees had been released, with Guan Eng and I sharing the dubious honour of having to serve the longest detention of 18 months.
Malaysians must never be allowed to forget the iniquities of Operation Lalang and the onslaughts on democracy and civil society, for we do not want another Operation Lalang.
In fact, it would not be out of place to ask when is the next Operation Lalang.
There was a period in August this year when the crisis atmosphere in Malaysia was so ominous that many thought there could be a repetition of Operation Lalang ten years ago with mass arrests of dissenters - when dissenting views from those of the Government on the twin currency and stock market crisis were condemned as "traitors" and threats to invoke ISA were made.
Such crisis atmosphere and threats to invoke the ISA against journalists, writers, financial analysts and economists who dare to depart from the official line on the twin currency and stock market crisis did not help to alleviate but only deepened the sense of economic and national crisis in the country.
Although that danger passed, we must recognise that when the country is faced with a political crisis coupled with an economic crisis, then the conditions are there for another Operation Lalang.
The only way to ensure that there would not be another Operation Lalang is to repeal the Internal Security Act and all repressive undemocratic laws.
However, there are no signs that the government would be prepared to be a model for democracy for developing countries, although the third strategic challenge of Vision 2020 calls for "fostering and developing mature democratic society, practising a form of mature consensual, community-oriented Malaysian democracy that can be a model for many developing countries".
The Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamed is unhappy and even wants a review of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Malaysia has not ratified the other two international human rights covenants although Malaysia voted for them in the United Nations General Assembly in 1966, namely the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.
As of 28th September 1995, 133 states have ratified or acceded to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, but Malaysia is not one of them, although according to Vision 2020, Malaysia wants to be a model for democracy for many developing countries.
Last week, I raised the question of Malaysia's ratification of the two international human rights covenants, and this is the answer from the Foreign Minister, Datuk Abdullah Badawi:
"Untuk makluman Dewan yang mulia ini, bila sesuatu Covenant/Konvensyen/Protokol dibentang dan diterima di Perhimpunan Agong PBB, tidak semestinya ianya akan terus ditandatangani ataupun diratifikasikan oleh negara-negara yang telah mengundi bersetuju. Pada kebiasaannya, Covenant/Konvensyen/Protokol akan dikaji oleh pakar-pakar undang-undang negara dan perbandingan akan dibuat dengan undang-undang domestik untuk memastikan ia tidak bercanggah dan boleh diterimapakai oleh negara.
"Malaysia setakat ini belum bercadang untuk menyertai (accede) International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) dan International Covenant On Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). Walau bagaimanapun proses pertimbangkan dan kajian atas artikel-artikel dalam Covenant ini masih diusahakan."
I find Badawi's answer outrageous, that it is not necessary for a country to ratify a covenant or protocol after voting for it. Malaysians must also express their outrage that the government needs to take over three decades to study the two international human rights covenants although the government voted in support for them in the UN General Assembly in 1966.
Let Malaysians send out a clear message that the want the government to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and not to take over three decades to study their implications - which is not flattering either to Malaysia's efficiency, competence or wisdom.
Although the government is exhorting Malaysians to be full participants and not bystanders in the information revolution, the government is adopting an information policy which is even more restrictive and less open and transparent than in the past.
Last week I posed a question in Parliament to ask the Home Minister to give the number of ISA detainees, the reasons for their detention and for details about the five ISA detainees who have served the longest detention.
This is the answer I got from the Home Minister:
"Untuk makluman Ahli Y.B. pada masa ini terdapat seramai 207 orang yang masih ditahan dibawah Akta Keselamatan Dalam Negeri 1960. Kesemua mereka ditahan kerana terlibat dalam kegiatan-kegiatan yang boleh memudaratkan keselamatn Malaysia. Walaubagaimanpun butir-butir mengenai tahanan yang ditahan untuk tempoh paling lama dibawah Akta Keselamatan Dalam Negeri 1960 yang masih ditahan sekarang ini tidak dapat diberikan kerana ianya tidak berkaitan."
In the seventies and eighties, there would be a full and proper answer to parliamentary questions about ISA detainees, but not today - a clear indication that the information society that the government is promoting does not necessarily mean that Malaysians would enjoy the right to information or that the government would be more open, accountable and transparent.
I remember that when I was detained for a second time under the ISA and was sent to Kamunting Detention Centre in 1987 with other Operation Lalang detainees, we found to our horror long-serving ISA detainees who had been forgotten by the authorities - who had served for more than 10 years, one over 13 years and another 16 years.
It was as a result of our highlighting such gross injustices and violations to human rights in Parliament and outside that these long-serving ISA detainees were released shortly after. But if currently there are long-serving ISA detainees who have similarly been forgotten, nobody would know about them - for the Home Ministry would not even furnish these particulars to Parliament, which is supposed to be the highest chamber in the land.