Thirty years after the operation, some of the same issues – race, religion, language – still plague some of our politicians.
MOST Malaysians are familiar with the popular rationale in politics, that there are no permanent enemies, or permanent friends, but only permanent interests.
The saying was made famous in the 1960s by African American politician William Clay who was heavily involved with civil liberty groups and unions, but never pretended to be above the practicalities of political battleground.
But the congressman would himself be surprised by what’s happening in Malaysia. Just 30 years ago, then Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad ordered a crackdown on more than 100 politicians, non-government organisation activists, academicians, students and more.
Ops Lalang, literally translated to mean Weeding Operation, saw what was probably the biggest arrests of dissidents under the Internal Security Act, although some opined that the arrests during the May 13 racial riots were bigger.
The reasons given now is that the police had to reduce racial tension, which had reached a “dangerous proportion” and that “racial riots were imminent.” Dr Mahathir has pointed the fingers entirely at the police.
But some of the victims, till now, have insisted that it was “designed to control his opponents” through the ISA.
In a nutshell, the mass arrests took place against the backdrop of a divided Umno, with Team A led by Dr Mahathir, and Team B led by Tan Sri Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah and Tun Musa Hitam.
Razaleigh is the Gua Musang MP and Musa was the deputy prime minister. Dr Mahathir narrowly won but faced a legal challenge which led to Umno being deregistered later on.
Then, there was the emergence of the NGOs, which irritated Dr Mahathir, including consumers, environment and civil societies, calling them “tools of foreign powers.”
The MCA and Chinese education groups, meanwhile, protested the switch to Bahasa Malaysia as a medium of instruction for optional courses in the departments of Chinese and Tamil studies at Universiti Malaya, and the Education Ministry’s move to appoint some 100 senior assistants and supervisors – all non-Chinese speaking – to Chinese-medium primary schools.
A demonstration was held in Kuala Lumpur, attended by prominent politicians, including those from MCA, DAP and Gerakan. The meeting called for a three-day boycott in Chinese schools if these issues were not resolved, but it was never seen through.
However, 50 schools went ahead, probably because they didn’t know about the call off or disagreed with the postponement.
Meanwhile, Umno Youth retaliated by holding a gathering in Kampung Baru, up in arms against the pressure applied by the Chinese educationists. Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak was then the Umno Youth chief.
There is a myth that Najib waved a keris and asked for the weapon “to be soaked with Chinese blood.” But none of my colleagues, other reporters or photographers who were there saw such a thing. Believe me, there would have been photographs to prove the point. However, there was a placard with those seditious words and that is documented in the Government’s White Paper on Ops Lalang, which was tabled in Parliament on March 28, 1988.
Without doubt, there was tension at the rally but fortunately, rain fell that day and took away the rising temperature after the thousands of angry people ran away to take shelter.
But the air in KL was still toxic with fear gripping the city as shops began shutting down.
And just to help tip the scale, the rampage of a mentally-challenged Malay soldier, killing a person (a Malay) and two others, with an M16 rifle in the Chow Kit area, set sparks to more rumours.
Fast forward to 2017 – Dr Mahathir is now an Opposition leader who heads Pakatan Harapan. He plans to meet many of the former Ops Lalang detainees today in Penang.
The irony is that many of the politicians he threw in jail are now on his side. They include DAP leaders who were then arrested under the ISA.
And of course, the DAP has publicly declared that they want Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim as Prime Minister if the Opposition front wins the next general election.
It was also Dr Mahathir who locked Anwar up under sodomy charges, saying the latter was not fit to be a prime minister. But they are now allies, even if, for a while.
There is also another irony. The fact remains that when Anwar was Education Minister, he directed all state education departments to allocate land reserved for schools, solely to national schools. He was also the one who sent non-Chinese speaking headmasters to Chinese schools.
Anwar will also be remembered as the Education Minister who publicly announced that he was giving only RM10 to Chinese schools, which was widely reported in the media. In Catholic schools, the crosses had to come down.
The DAP leaders who were detained during Ops Lalang paid a price for standing up against Anwar, but today, they are calling for him to be PM.
Clay would have choked to see how his popular adage is being played out in Malaysia.
Our younger generation obviously have no idea what took place in the months leading up to Oct 27, 1987.
Some journalists, who are now in their 30s (who were only born after 1987, or were in primary school then), have no clue of the detailed political games that went on.
Dr Mahathir shut down The Star, Sin Chew Jit Poh and Watan for five months. And most of us, including this writer, lost our livelihood. In the case of The Star, we had taken a strong stand on the Chinese school issue.
On the morning of The Star’s suspension, a Special Branch officer, who was a friend, called me up to say we should have breakfast.
We went to a nearby coffeeshop, and as he discreetly inquired about my work, I was unaware how the day would pan out. Working in Penang, I had no idea the Home Ministry would deliver the suspension order to my editors in KL.
My SB friend had come to see me too early – he just wanted to know what the reporters would be doing next, as he had to file a report. I told him later that we had been asked to go on leave indefinitely.
But as the day proceeded, we were glued to our computers as news kept pouring in, almost incessantly, of people being arrested.
While we were familiar with the Opposition politicians, some names just drew blank looks. It was very much later, that the police revealed that some were arrested for communist activities, and some church leaders taken in accused of converting Muslims. And since they were ISA detainees, it was decreed there was no need for details to be provided.
One person I kept updated of the arrests was academician Dr Chandra Muzaffar, who called me. But since I was on my lunch break, I told him I would call him back. And, to my word, I called him back, though it was his wife who answered the phone and told me, “they took my Chandra away.”
There was another rude shock. Someone I met for tea at Gurney Drive, where the Consumer Association of Penang office was located, was subsequently arrested. She was CAP’s legal official, Meenakshi Raman.
Frightened and shaken, the National Union of Journalists held discussions with the Home Ministry and police, and was assured that no reporters would be arrested, but not many believed what they were told.
Just months earlier, Dr Mahathir had already lost his patience with the NUJ for getting its members to wear black armbands to Parliament and to stage protests outside their newspaper offices nationwide against amendments to the Official Secrets Act.
A few of my editors fled, fearing their names were on the list, and in the days before the mobile telephone, it was impossible to reach them. Well, they would not be using any device today either, for fear of being detected.
Few of us slept peacefully at night, worried that the cops would come knocking. We learned that the cops preferred to make arrests in the wee hours of the morning since the targets’ defences would be down.
But it was the five months’ suspension that hit us the hardest. Christmas and Chinese New Year passed, without any news of us returning to our jobs, and funds were running low.
There were many sympathetic employers, but they, too, expressed belief that we would return to our newsmen jobs, and they were not wrong. We love our jobs too much.
Paradoxically, the loss of a job did not deter me from winning the heart of my future wife, Florence. Even though I was jobless, penniless and possibly, without a future, they were not issues with her. For me, I didn’t have to think twice, this was the woman I wanted as my wife. And she is the best thing that has ever happened to me.
More than 30 years into the job, like many seasoned journalists, some of us have grown cynical and lost our sense of idealism. We do not see the world through rose-tinted glasses, and prefer to lump politicians in the same category.
The so-called heroes we once looked up to, may not be the same people we idolised, and for politicians, for all the good things that they may have done, harsh judgment is par for the course.
Many of us have forgotten that it was Najib who abolished the ISA. He also took away the need to renew the printing permit for newspapers, but of course, the obsolete law still requires the application of a printing permit – which is ridiculously odd in the digital age.
Najib’s biggest decision as Education Minister was to give up his power – as then provided for under Section 21(2) of the Education Act – to close down Chinese schools and convert them to national schools.
That single act of giving up his authority surely removed the uncertainties that hung over the heads of the Chinese community.
And on the eve of the 30th anniversary of Ops Lalang, Najib approved the setting up of 10 new Chinese primary schools in Johor and Selangor, and the relocation of six other Chinese schools.
Shifting political interests have seen politicians, who thumped their chests in the name of political principles, actually discarding their values.
DAP who fought PAS for years suddenly asked voters to back the Islamist party in 2013 and now, they are squabbling again.
Now in 2017, after decades of fighting, Dr Mahathir and DAP have become bosom buddies. Meanwhile, Umno and PAS, both long standing rivals, are playing footsie and heaping praises on each other.
Some of us remember how their rivalry was so bitter at one time that supporters of both parties refused to even pray together in the same mosque.
As American writer Mark Twain, once wrote “truth is stranger than fiction but it is because Fiction is obliged to stick to possibilities; Truth isn’t.”
And 30 years later, race, religion and language still consume Malaysian politicians, adding to the melodrama. There are many same old actors on stage who never seem to fade away. They are still acting, you may say.