After rounding up scores of people last April under the notorious Internal Security Act (ISA), the Mahathir regime in Malaysia is now targeting the country’s campuses in its attempts to halt the escalating opposition of young people to his government. On July 5 Khairul Anuar, a 24-year-old electrical-engineering student was abducted by several men and driven to an unknown destination. The next day 22-year-old Muhammad Fuad, president of the influential student representative council of the University of Malaya, was abducted on campus while riding his motorbike alone. Both were accused of being a “threat to national security”: the phrase usually used to describe anyone who disagrees with government policies.
Only a few days earlier Tunku Canselor Hall of the University of Malaya, one of the country’s oldest landmarks, had been burnt down on the eve of a function that was to have been attended by Mahathir there. The authorities’ immediate reaction was to blame opposition-minded students of resorting to violence. Many have drawn in this a parallel to the arms-heist-cum-murder incident in June last year, which the government immediately blamed the Islamic party, PAS, of masterminding. This time, the police chief said that students who had studied in al-Azhar, Pakistan and Turkey were militants, adding that those who had served in the jihad in Afghanistan and the Indonesian Ambon islands were inclined to violence and militancy.
Earlier the police said that they had obtained ‘confessions’ from unnamed ‘militants’ that they had been involved in the murder of a government backbencher last November for trying to spread Christianity among Muslims. But Malaysia’s recent history of ‘confessions’ is reason enough for the public not to panic. Still, the Malaysian authorities went one step further than their Arab and Western counterparts: these ‘jihad’ groups are now also accused of robbing banks to raise fund for overseas jihad movements!
The latest campaign against the students comes after failed efforts by the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO), the ruling secular party, to persuade students to join its newly-established youth wings. Since reformasi (the movement provoked by the persecution of the former deputy prime minister, Anwar Ibrahim) began in September 1998, many students have been the target of the Special Branch police because of their involvement in a series of successful mobilisations of crowds at anti-government demonstrations. Some were detained when the country was thrown into turmoil after widespread anger at Mahathir’s treatment of Anwar Ibrahim. After the elections in November 1999, in which the UMNO-led ruling coalition was snubbed by the Malay Muslims, the regime has refrained from invoking the Act on students, as part of its attempt to win the support of the younger generation.
The arrests show that the regime has given up trying to woo students and is now ruthless against those who criticise it. This follows the police chief’s warning that he has no qualms about arresting anyone. “Even [if they are] housewives or old men, we will still arrest them,” he said. Mahathir reinforced the warning on July 8 with a threat that students involved in opposition politics face expulsion, spicing the threat with his now-typical attack on the Malay Muslims. “It seems Malay students are making universities the ground for their political involvement focused on anti-government activities.There is no problem with the other students,” he added.
The threat is already being carried out. Many students have been systematically expelled or are being subjected to disciplinary action, resulting in suspensions and fines. The best-known case is that of engineering student Rafzan Ramli, who was denied a chance of a hearing and expelled by the university merely on a recommendation by the police. Taking its venom a step further, the government, which also controls the licenses of all private institutions, issued a stern warning to them not to accept expelled students, thus ruining Rafzan’s chance to pursue his education elsewhere. The charge against Rafzan was that he took part in a peaceful protest of students calling on the government to repeal the ISA.
As we go to press, scores of students are awaiting their turn to be given a ‘hearing’ by the authorities, and many of them will probably be expelled. Others have gone into hiding for fear of being detained under the ISA, knowing well the fate that has befallen ISA detainees in the last three years.
The ISA, a relic of the British colonialists’ fight against communist insurgency in the then Malaya, allows the regime to detain anybody without producing evidence or going to court for an injunction. Detainees are at the mercy of the police for the first 60 days, after which their detention can be extended for another two years. In 1998, after the dramatic dismissal of Anwar Ibrahim, several people close to him were tortured by the police and forced to confess that they had had homosexual relations with him. Such obscene allegations are used continuously by Mahathir to vilify his former deputy, despite the fact that in the ensuing trials prosecutors failed to produce any evidence whatsoever in support of them, apart from the coerced confessions.
Last April ten activists were arrested under the ISA. A few others were arrested in connection with what authorities claimed was their plan to launch a ‘holy war’ and set up an Islamic state. In a surprising twist, however, a High Court judge last month ordered the release of two ISA detainees, and issued a bold judgement calling on the government either to repeal the Act or to stop abusing it. The judgement is perceived by analysts to mark a ‘resurgent judiciary’ that has long been servile to Mahathir. That perception is strengthened by two more judgements: one disqualifying a government MP after ruling that in the last election he had won his seat by means of ‘phantom’ voters; the other a decision by the Federal Court, the country’s highest court, nullifying a jail-sentence passed by a judge on one of Anwar’s lawyers for contempt of court, and ruling that the judge had behaved like a prosecutor against Anwar Ibrahim.
A recent survey has confirmed that the vast majority of university students sympathise with the opposition, a trend that will cost the ruling party dear when calculated in terms of electoral votes. Early this year, Islamic-minded student leaders and groups sympathetic to reformasi swept to power in the student-bodies of the country’s major institutions of higher learning, reinforcing the trend over the last three years of students demanding greater political freedom and judicial independence.
Mahathir himself realises this. He warned party loyalists on July 7 that a hostile young generation of voters would pose a serious threat to their power. “We can no longer count on the young to thank the government for giving them a comfortable life,” he said in his vintage style. “This society has become savage towards us. The young generation cannot appreciate our pain and struggle to develop the country. They blink their eyes and behold skyscrapers all around them,” he added. Skycrapers in Kuala Lumpur have often been used by Mahathir as an example of the ‘progress’ achieved under his rule for which the masses should be grateful. That itself is an indication of the ruling party’s isolation, as well as Mahathir’s age catching up with him.
Meanwhile, in a departure from its previous policy, the Mahathir regime is also harrassing owners of internet websites and participants of discussion-lists that are critical of the government. Officials also admit that they are seeking ways to block the websites: an arduous task considering the nature of the internet. The internet has been the cornerstone of the opposition, outwitting the many draconian restrictions on publication of journals that are even mildly critical of the government’s policies.