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
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.
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:
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
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
"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.
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.