This is an excerpt of ABC’s Radio Australia News’s interview with Saudara Lim Guan Eng in Melbourne, Australia last month.
Speaker: Lim Guan Eng, Chief Minister of Penang and Secretary General of Malaysia’s Democratic Action Party
WILSON: … I’d like to hear your personal experience with the Internal Security Act. Now you were arrested under this act in the past, it was quite some time ago, but can you just outline for us the circumstances of that arrest?
LIM: Well I was detained for being a threat to national security, at the time I was only 26 years old, newly elected to parliament, and it is actually a preventive law which detains you without trial. So it is a subjective exercise or discretionary exercise by the minister in charge. They do not have to justify why they arrested you, and it is arbitrary and completely, well described as high-handed abuse of democratic norms, an act to stifle dissent. If I am considered a security threat when I was only 26 years old, I’d like to believe I’m a greater security threat now. Why am I not detained now?
Detention without trial, solitary confinement
WILSON: But did you know at the time that you were being antagonistic and you perhaps would be subject to this sort of treatment?
LIM: No I expected to be detained at some point of my career, not when I was just elected to parliament. How can you be a threat to national security when you are just 26 and I do not think I was that influential that if I’m not detained the whole country will go up in flames. That is far-fetched.
WILSON: And you were detained for over a year, just explain the circumstances?
LIM: 18 months, well for the first 60 days you are put under solitary confinement, the conditions of detention were what you saw in the movies; interrogation continuously for 48 hours, they put you in an enclosed room without any windows, only a ventilation shute or a vent and you’re just cut off completely from society. So you only face four walls and you have no human contact whatsoever except with your interrogators. And I think that boredom and that solitary confinement can really drive you up the wall.
WILSON: So you had no idea of what sort of support you might have had outside of your confinement and how much people knew about your situation?
LIM: For the first 60 days, none. But after my detention was extended for two years, then I had contact with the outside world, but not for the first 60 days.
WILSON: How did that experience shape your political career?
LIM: Well when you’re detained under ISA there are only two possible results; one is either you break down and you give in, what … described to your family you are turned over, or you become more determined to try to reform. And I think that I ended up angry and more determined as I said to make sure that what happened to me if possible doesn’t happen to other Malaysians.
WILSON: And how is that use of detention and the ISA, how has that changed in your view the use of that to influence political opposition over the years since you were detained, what is it, it’s 25 years ago now?
LIM: 1987, that’ll be nearly 25 years, right.
Gentler treatment, the ISA is still evil
LIM: Yes, I think the treatment now is a little bit more, well I wonder whether the use of the word humane is appropriate, but I think they treat them a little bit gentler than during our time, because they’re used to getting away with it, and when you highlighted your abusers they had to do some modifications. But again these are superficial modifications. The core of the issue is that the ISA is evil, detention without trial is wrong. Nothing, no explanation can turn what is black into white. And it must be scrapped unconditionally.
WILSON: So that’s what you’d be looking for from the Prime Minister, Najib Razak, is it, a commitment to repeal it unconditionally?
LIM: That’s right.
WILSON: How optimistic are you that you will actually see that?
LIM: Well the fact that he’s forced to yield, previously his position is that there will be no repeal of the ISA and he’s refused to compromise on questions of security. Now this sudden announcement I think is a result of concerted pressure from all segments of society, even from supporters within the ruling coalition. I think he has come to realise that he cannot withstand the demands of civil society, and even if Malaysia is to be a civilised nation such oppressive, repressive and suppressive laws have to go.
The success of Bersih
WILSON: How much of this decision or the announcement to repeal the act, how much do you think is related to some of the protests and the social push that we’ve seen in Malaysia this year?
LIM: Definitely it’s linked because the Bersih rally, the quest for free, fair and clean elections was badly mishandled by the government resulting in two-thousand arrests of ordinary and law-abiding citizens, and Malaysia received widespread condemnation of the harsh crackdown. And I think they lost tremendous support, the Prime Minister’s approval rating slipped from a high of 73 per cent to 59 per cent. So this is an attempt by him to shore-up support to try to regain the initiative that he’s also a human rights advocate. But we are wondering whether he’s merely pouring old wine in new bottles.
WILSON: Does that change in support for the Prime Minister or drop as you say in support for the Prime Minister, does it naturally translate to an increased support for Bersih?
LIM: Definitely, and also I think it also eats into his efforts to try to win back more states in the next elections. So this is as I said an attempt, a cosmetic exercise which will only be proven if he continues to repeal it next year, but if he does it this year. And also the other question, Cameron, he (Najib) has said that whilst the ISA is going to be repealed, it’ll be replaced by two other preventive laws, and we are wondering if the preventive laws that he’s going to replace the ISA is the same. And it’s not one, it’s two preventive laws, and are we getting now two ISA’s instead of one.
WILSON: And at this stage the detail of those two new laws is still relatively scant?
LIM: No details whatsoever. So it may end up to be just an empty, a meaningless announcement. -The Rocket