All Present And Accounted For
Like many others, I stopped breathing last Friday evening as I saw my worst fears begin to materialize.
For some time now, talk of a crackdown similar to the 1987 Operasi Lalang had been intensifying, in part due to the Government’s unapologetic stance as to its readiness to use the Internal Security Act when it thought it necessary. This had not given much comfort to those who remember the dragnets of 1987 and 2001. If history had taught us anything, it was that in a world where politics determines so much, “when necessary” is a heavily nuanced and very subjective notion. We cannot be faulted for assuming that UMNO will employ the ISA to its convenience if it is in its political interests to do so.
As the events of the weekend have shown us, our assumption has some basis.
By early Friday afternoon, I had learnt that Raja Petra had been detained. I had also begun to hear the rumours that this was the start of a wider sweep that was to take place over the weekend and was profoundly troubled by them. I found myself struggling between not wanting to believe that the Government would be prepared to take that course, it being so counterintuitive, and being forced by circumstance to accept that the terror had started. The situation was not clear. there had after all been prior indication of the Government’s intention to detain Raja Petra specifically. Furthermore, no one had been detained since Petra’s detention at about 1.50 pm. Like all victims of impending disaster, clutching at straws I began to try to rationalize my way out of what seemed like a certain outcome.
I had begun to make some headway when I got news that Tan Hoon Cheng had been detained.
Up to that point dinner had been congenial. It carried on in complete silence, each one of us there thinking of who it was that we knew who could possibly be picked up. We recalled how there had been no apparent pattern to the detentions of 1987 and appreciated that the authorities would want to be able to point to random causes to argue against accusations of a political plan if in fact there was one. Academics and missionaries had been swept up in Operasi Lalang, even as the opposition was neutered by the removal of its leaders and prime movers.
The detention of Hoon Cheng meant that virtually anyone who had in some way or other been a little more public than average was a potential target. As concerned friends and acquaintances began to call in, for my sake and a number of people I knew and cared for, the yawning abyss of uncertainty before me brought home the painful realization of the potential costs of standing up for beliefs and a better country. Liberty and the integrity of mind, body and spirit were really no more than a question of not being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
The news that Theresa Kok had been detained rammed that conclusion home. She had done nothing out of the ordinary, more so when compared to other personalities in politics. Any doubts I had began to dissipate; there was something bigger afoot.
It was a long night. Tracking news about people I knew, speaking to them, making sure that we all felt connected to each other, to share what little encouragement we could. Speaking to others, trying to help spread the message that whatever was to happen we were to meet it calmly and with the belief that things would be for the best.
But even as the pieces fell into place and we began to face up to the probability of a wide sweeping operasi, the differences began to emerge and I could see that this was not 1987. Malaysians were reaching out to each other, messaging and calling, organizing vigils, lending their support, standing up to the intimidation as best as they could with a calmness that shone out into the gloom that threatened to engulf us, dissipating it. Looking out, I saw lights on in houses on the street where I was late into the night, early into the morning. They were beacons of hope that promised the dawn of a new day.
And come it did, something happened.
Hoong Cheng was released, accompanied by a farcical explanation that only strengthened public resolve. Raja Petra and Theresa are still under detention but their families have got to see them and their lawyers are hard at work on what in my view seem to be promising cases for habeas corpus. No other persons were detained, perhaps in part due to Barisan Ministers and component parties having taken positions against the detentions, echoing the sentiment of outrage expressed by civil society. In an unprecedented move, an UMNO Minister tendered his resignation on principle for the unjust use of the ISA. And the Government has had its hands full attempting to explain the inexplicable as it never has had to before.
Whither Malaysia? We are right here, all present and accounted for.
(Malay Mail; 16th September 2008)