Mahathir: The Police Did It

The 86-year-old former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad of Malaysia has kicked off another furious controversy, claiming in a book interview that it was the police, and not him, who kicked off the infamous Operation Lalang in 1987, which saw 106 people arrested, including top members of the political opposition, under the country's Internal Security Act.

In a new book of interviews by US columnist Tom Plate, titled, Doctor M: Operation Malaysia - Conversations with Mahathir Mohamad, the former premier said: "Well, I would have handled it differently, except that the police wanted to do these things because they say it is necessary...I actually met all of the opposition members (beforehand) and assured them that they would not be arrested. And you know what the police did? They arrested them. My credibility is gone," he said.

The remarks to Plate are regarded by a wide range of critics as an attempt to shift blame for the 1987 crackdown, particularly since he signed the detention orders and ordered extensions for 40 people who were forced to spend another two years in prison.

Actually, in a subsequent interview with the online publication Malaysiakini following publication of the Plate book, Mahathir wasn't that repentant, advocating early action to keep the country's racial firebrands in line:

"Oh, you take early action," he said. "You do things before they happen. You know, a lot of things have been said against these preventive laws. But preventive laws are laws meant to prevent crimes, or whatever, from happening, because they are meant to deter people from doing something. When you see people getting over-emotional in a multiracial country, you know that sooner, and sooner rather than later, they would be fighting each other. They would actually be killing each other, and this happened in 1969," he said.

Mahathir told Plate he felt a certain amount of regret over the Operation Lalang decision: "Regrets ... I mean you have to trust the police, because you have to work with them," he said. "They are the people who have to look after security, and when they advise you that the tension is very high, that it might explode into racial riots, and they need to take this action, you can't tell them no. You don't, you see, because you know less than they do. See, and you have to trust the people who are the implementers. I have no means of verifying everything that they say," he said.

That provoked an angry response, particularly from Lim Kit Siang, then the secretary-general of the opposition Democratic Action Party, who was one of those arrested in the crackdown. Mahathir, he said, had never met with any of the opposition members nor had he assured them they wouldn't be arrested. Lim was among 40 arrested who ended up spending a full two years in a Malaysian detention center.

Karpal Singh, now the DAP chief, accused Dr Mahathir of a "downright and unadulterated lie." There was "no meeting whatsoever between Dr Mahathir and opposition members before they were nabbed by the police under Operation Lalang, which was directed by Dr Mahathir," Karpal Singh said in a prepared statement.

Mohammed Hanif Omar, the inspector general of police at the time of the arrests, later issued a statement backing Mahathir and denying that the former premier had ordered the detentions. Mahathir, he said, was opposed to the arrests.

"You can't blame him. He is right. As a matter of fact, it was entirely the police's decision. It was not his decision. Mahathir was actually opposed to it... He was against Ops Lalang," Hanif told the online publication Malaysiakini, adding that the police were entirely responsible for the operation.

"It was not (Mahathir's) role nor was it his power. We were the ones responsible for it," he added.

However, Karpal Singh pointed out that Mahathir had personally signed the detention orders.

"Dr Mahathir's lie that it was the police who were responsible for Operation Lalang is further nailed by the fact that after I was released by the High Court Ipoh following my successful habeas corpus application on 9th March 1988, it was Dr Mahathir who ordered my re-arrest by the police " Karpal said. "And it was Dr Mahathir himself who signed my second detention order under the Internal Security Act ISA on 16th April 1988."

Operation Lalang is considered one of the darkest episodes in recent Malaysian history. It was kicked off by government appointments of administrators to vernacular Chinese schools, among them ethnic Chinese principals and administrators who were not educated in Mandarin. Amid a generally darkening racial climate, the protest in the Chinese community was met with a storm of counter-protest by ethnic Malays.

As the crisis escalated, some 10,000 Malays turned up at a mass rally in a Kuala Lumpur stadium and threatened another that was expected to bring out a half-million members of the United Malays National Organization. Among the protesters was the current Prime Minister, Najib Tun Razak, then the head of the UMNO Youth Wing. At a massive rally in Kampung Baru, an ethnic Malay enclave in Kuala Lumpur, Najib waved a kris, the Malay ceremonial knife, and threatened to "bathe it in Chinese blood."

As the situation worsened, many Chinese started shuttering their businesses, fearing a repeat of the bloody riots of July 1969 when hundreds on both sides of the ethnic divide were killed.

Despite the rising provocations on both sides, when the police cracked down, it was opposition politicians and prominent members of non-government organizations who were jailed, including the then-head of the Aliran reform organization, Chandra Muzaffar, who had been crippled by polio since the age of 4. The UMNO firebrands like Najib were left free.

In addition to the arrests of the 106 opposition and NGO figures, the government went considerably further in the succeeding months. Three Chinese-language newspapers were closed, the Printing Presses and Publishing Act was amended require annual license renewals to restrict the freedom of the press even more, political gatherings were ordered restricted, although that appears largely to have been ignored in recent years.