Draconian ISA not intended for politics
April 18, 2001

Singapore has maintained its own version of the ISA

MALAYSIA'S tough security law -- under which anyone deemed a threat to the government or country can be held without trial -- was created to fight terrorists not political rivals, according to the Briton who helped draft it.

Hugh Hickling, who worked on the Internal Security Act (ISA) after the country switched from British rule to independence in 1957, said the law was drafted to deal with communist rebels.

The spotlight fell on the (ISA) last week after seven opposition activists were detained ahead of an anti-government rally in the capital by supporters of jailed former finance minister Anwar Ibrahim -- arch rival to Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.

Police said the seven had sought explosives and help from Indonesia to hold violent protests. The opposition said the allegations were shameful and demanded the detainees be allowed trial to prove their innocence.

The ISA, which lets police lock up anyone for 60 days and thereafter for another two years if the government approves, has mostly been used over the last 20 years against dissidents accused of trying to destabilise the nation.

The colonial-era law has come under increasing criticism in modern Malaysia, with calls from many -- including some government lawmakers -- to repeal it.

"When we drafted it, we were aiming at organised violence,"

Hickling, a parliamentary draughtsman and legal advisor to authorities in 1960 in what was then Malaya when the ISA came into effect.

"We were thinking of communist terrorists, basically," he told Reuters.

"The Act in its original form was never meant to be dropped on Chandra Muzaffar or somebody who's just getting up, saying anything the government is wrong about," he said during a visit to Kuala Lumpur.

Chandra, a wheelchair-bound politician and a harsh critic of Mahathir, was detained in 1987 in one of the biggest crackdowns under the ISA.

Hickling, however, said it was not for him to say if the ISA should be scrapped.

"As a lawyer, I'm all for its review but on whether it should be scrapped, I don't know," he said. "You've got a multi-racial society in which emotions can run high very quickly."


The communist rebellion against Malaysia ended in 1990. But Mahathir's government decided to retain the ISA, saying the country still faced security threats. The opposition says the law is a convenient tool to muzzle government critics.

Hickling, who left in 1962 but has returned frequently for holidays or to lecture on law at local universities, said he never thought the ISA would remain unchallenged in court.

"That to me, would have been unthinkable."

Mahathir said on Apr 16 the ISA would stay in place in its current form so long as there were people in the country who sought to topple the government by undemocratic means.

"It has served its purpose well," the prime minister said.

Hickling said the ISA was a relic of an emergency law enacted by the British in 1948 during the communist insurgency.

In 1960, three years after independence, Malaya decided to revise the emergency ruling and Hickling was entrusted along with police and military officials to draft the ISA.

"We were told to see what should be kept and what should be thrown out," he said. "So you could argue from the point of view of idiots like myself that the ISA represented a step forward."

Hickling, now 80, said he could not remember if the ISA was used against political dissidents in its early days.

"But I remember Tunku Abdul Rahman, the first prime minister, giving a court affidavit once, which essentially said the whole purpose of the law was to fight terrorists and not to be extended to any Tom, Dick or Harry."

He said Singapore, which became a part of Malaysia, before leaving the federation in 1965, has maintained its own version of the ISA.