KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 19 — The Malaysian government’s detention of political rivals under the Internal Security Act (ISA) 1960 decades ago was “wrong”, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad has said.
Dr Mahathir, who was prime minister during the 1987 mass crackdown on civil society under the ISA, claimed that he had wanted the colonial-era law to be scrapped.
“That ISA is meant for detaining only people who are a threat to the nation, it was enacted during the time when we were a colony.
“Of course after independence, we still need the law because the country would be totally unstable if you find that people who threaten the community are free to do what they like.
“So the ISA was meant for detaining those people, but I must admit that the government at times detained political opponents. That was wrong.
“That is why I wanted to annul the law, but the police and the other enforcers felt that the law was needed,” he said in a dialogue session at the Oxford Union in the UK yesterday.
He was asked if he felt it was “slightly hypocritical” for him to say at the United Nations General Assembly last September that the international community rewards Israel for breaking international law, given his own records with the use of ISA.
The ISA was notoriously used during the 1987 Ops Lalang where the government launched a mass crackdown over one hundred Malaysians, including politicians. They were arrested and detained without trial, with many held for periods that stretched from months or years.
Dr Mahathir was prime minister for 22 years from 1981 to 2003, but has returned to the post following the May 9, 2018 elections where his Pakatan Harapan coalition defeated the Barisan Nasional coalition.
During the same session, Dr Mahathir noted that the ISA has already been scrapped, and noted that he was opposed to the BN government’s enactment of a new law which was more severe than ISA.
“I was also against ISA during my time but the police, enforcers did not want to have the ISA removed because of certain needs of the country,” he said.
ISA was repealed in 2012 under the Najib administration, and was replaced with the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012.
Earlier in the same dialogue session, Dr Mahathir was asked if he felt the need to defend his record on civil liberties upon his re-entry as PM when he had allegedly used the ISA as a tool to suppress freedom of speech and honest debate.
“I don’t have to explain my past although I was accused of doing many things.
“I think the most important thing is to work together with the opposition parties, form a new government and then correct whatever mistakes that were done by the previous government,” he replied, referring to then federal opposition PH’s bid to replace the BN administration.
When asked further if he felt the need to address past mistakes or criticism about the use of ISA, Dr Mahathir responded by saying: “What I feel is not important. What the people feel is very important, they feel that I should go back.”
He pointed out the massive turnouts for rallies during campaigns for the 2018 election as a sign of support for his return to helm the country, as well as PH proposing him to be the leader of the then opposition pact.
Dr Mahathir also highlighted that the PH government have decided to not let the prime minister have too much power.
“So we have shifted the power to the Parliament in the case of choosing senior officials, etc., it is no longer the prime mister who will name the person concerned, it will be the Parliament.
“The Parliament will have a select committee to choose the person to hold whatever job that may be, so I have actually agreed to reduce the power of the prime minister because that power can be abused,” he said.
Dr Mahathir compared his first stint as prime minister where he asserted he had not abused his powers, contrasting it to his latest predecessor’s rule.
“During my time, the people didn’t demonstrate against me, so that’s because I didn’t abuse — at least in the eyes of the people concerned — I did not abuse the authority conferred on me,” he said.