Saturday, August 1, 2009

Does Malaysia still need the ISA ?

The Internal Security Act (ISA) has never failed to provoke its fair share of controversies. The government says we need it; the foreign media says its unethical but ultimately, the majority of Malaysians want the policy scrapped for good.

The preventive detention law was first drafted by the government to counter the communist insurgents during the Emergency Years. And yes, the law has been instrumental in putting a dent in the Jemaah Islamiyah terror movement many years ago. But the question is: Do we really need the ISA?

Both former Law Minister Datuk Zaid Ibrahim and Human Resources Minister Datuk Dr. S. Subramaniam have in the past expressed their discontent with the abuse of the ISA by the powers that be. Zaid Ibrahim, a lawyer by profession have said that Malaysia has adequate laws to prosecute an individual deemed a threat to national security and there is simply no need to invoke the controversial law.

In an article published by the Malaysian Insider, Pasir Mas independent MP Ibrahim Ali has called for the support and the continuity of the ISA. He reckons a multiracial country like Malaysia needs the ISA in order to maintain peace and order in society. To support his argument, he suggests that it would be 'easier' to arrest a terrorist suspect who is plotting to bomb a public area under the ISA, rather than using conventional detention law to prosecute him in court for 'he' has yet to commit a crime.

Nonetheless, I believe that kind of reasoning is flawed.

First of all, if an arrest is to be made on a terror suspect, that would likely mean the authorities have sufficient evidence of his terrorist involvement in the first place; otherwise an arrest warrant cannot be issued. Secondly, the police still has the right to detain a criminal suspect for 48 hours for interrogation - even without a warrant. On the other hand, a person can be incarcerated up to 60 days of interrogation without access to legal counsel under the ISA.

In fact, I would support the ISA if and only if the legislation is restricted to cover terrorist or military threats. The fact is that today, the party in power has the prerogative to choose who is a 'threat' and who is not. This gives powerful individuals in the government to abuse the ISA. Individuals like Raja Petra Kamarudin and Teresa Kok were considered threats to national security simply because they disagreed with certain government policies and practices. Are bloggers and MPs now more dangerous than crooks and terrorists?

Recent trends have also shown that the ISA is currently being used to serve political purposes.

But what about the racists? People have called for the ISA to be used on politicians like former Bukit Bendera division chief Ahmad Ismail who labelled the Chinese Malaysians as squatters last year. Nothing happened. So to say that Malaysia needs the ISA to prevent people from stirring racial sentiments is irrelevant. When the ISA is really needed to serve its true purpose, it is not used. What is the point then?

But I believe in the freedom of speech. Being of Chinese descent, if one decides to make a racist statement on my ancestry in public, does it mean I should start a racial riot and torch every Malay home or business? No. But unfortunately, our society is not mature enough to handle such harsh statements - yet.

The ethical issue with the ISA is that a person can be arrested for a crime he has yet to commit. That is like putting the cart before the horse. Likewise, when heavy Muslim-dressed passengers have to undergo tighter security screenings for 'potential terrorist affiliations' in European and American airports, many here cry foul against the religious/racial profiling being exercised by the liberal West. Similarly, the police here could also arrest every single motorcycle rider on the road for being potentially 'Rempit'. Why not?

Hence, I believe the ISA has already served its purpose to suppress the communists. Laws are drafted to fulfil the nation's needs of a specific period and therefore we cannot expect a law to remain relevant forever. Laws have to be amended according to the times. The same applies with the ISA.

I would support if the role of the ISA is to be reviewed by the government. However, I am still not to keen on that idea. I would rather see the ISA be abolished and a new set of law be tabled to address the issues of national security. Why allow a law like the ISA which has all the room for abuse by corrupt leaders to continue to prevail?

Thus, the reviewed ISA or whatever name the new law is to be called, should be more specific in its definition of 'national threats' and the criteria which define them in order to prevent future abuses.