Operation Lalang (Weeding Operation; also referred to as Ops Lalang) was carried out on October 27, 1987 by the Malaysian police to crack down on opposition leaders and social activists. The operation saw the infamous arrest of 106 persons under the Internal Security Act (ISA) and the revoking of the publishing licenses of two dailies, The Star and the Sin Chew Jit Poh and two weeklies, The Sunday Star and Watan.
The political developments which brought this second largest ISA swoop in Malaysian history since the May 13 riots, were sparked ostensibly by mounting political tensions having strong racial overtones. According to the White Paper explaining the arrests, various groups who had played up "sensitive issues" and thus created "racial tension" in the country had exploited the government's liberal and tolerant attitude. This racial tension made the arrests necessary and further, forced the government to act "swiftly and firmly" to contain the situation.
Vernacular Chinese school controversy
The sensitive issues were brought on by what appeared innocuously enough as Education Ministry appointments of some 100 senior assistants and principals to vernacular Chinese schools. This provoked a storm of protest when it was learnt that those appointed were Chinese whom were not Mandarin-educated.
Politicians from the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA), the Democratic Action Party (DAP), GERAKAN and major Chinese-based parties joined the protests and on October 11, 1987, the Dong Jiao Zong (Chinese educationists) held a 2,000-strong gathering at the Hainanese Association Building, beside the Thian Hou Temple in Kuala Lumpur, which evoked racially provocative speeches from the Chinese politicians present. The meeting resolved to call a three-day boycott in Chinese schools if the government did not settle the appointments issue. The boycott was called off later, albeit at the eleventh hour.
Response by UMNO Youth and detentions
In the event, even though the boycott was cancelled, the stage was set for a mirror response from the Malays, led by UMNO Youth. A mass rally of 10,000 was held at the TPCA Stadium in Kuala Lumpur and, by then, UMNO politicians had began to condemn MCA leaders for their collusion with the Dong Jiao Zong and the opposition DAP. Amidst calls from both sides for the resignations of MCA Deputy President and Labour Minister Lee Kim Sai and UMNO Education Minister Anwar Ibrahim, UMNO announced the holding of a mammoth rally in KL to celebrate its 41st Anniversary, which it was claimed would see the attendance of half a million members.
The proposed UMNO rally was the ostensible reason for the Inspector General of Police to precipitate the 27 October crackdown. Had the rally been held it was not improbable that racial riots could be sparked by the incendiary speeches of UMNO politicians. To make matters worse, a tinder box situation was already created by the rampage of a Malay soldier who killed a Malay and two Chinese with an M16 rifle in the Chow Kit area, straddling two large Chinese and Malay communities.
The pundits have it that the Prime Minister had to have a quid pro quo for cancelling the UMNO rally. Hence the arrests of prominent Chinese politicians. In retrospect, some of the culprits like Lee Kim Sai escaped arrest while many opposition members and activists with nothing to do with racial incitement were put in. Most of the government party people also saw early release while the dissidents generally served detention terms up to two years.
Najib Tun Razak, then-president of the UMNO Youth wing, had led a massive Malay rally in Kampung Baru. The Chinese community was gripped with fear of the possibility of May 13 repeating, and many Chinese businesses around the city was closed for a few days to avoid any potential attacks from the Malay ultra-nationalists.
Operation Lalang resulted in the arrest of 106 people under the Internal Security Act. Among the more prominent detainees were opposition leader and DAP Secretary-General Lim Kit Siang, ALIRAN President Chandra Muzaffar, DAP Deputy Chairman Karpal Singh, MCA Vice President and Perak Chief Chan Kit Chee, PAS Youth Chief Halim Arshat, UMNO MP for Pasir Mas Ibrahim Ali, and UMNO Youth Education Chairman Mohamed Fahmi Ibrahim. Other prominent non-political detainees included Dong Jiao Zhong (Chinese Education Associations) Chairman Lim Fong Seng, Publicity Chief of the Civil Rights Committee Kua Kia Soong, and WAO member Irene Xavier. Besides that, there was also another detainee called Hilmy Noor, a Malay Christian, who was accused for "disrupting the Malay culture by being a Christian", while the Federal Constitution of Malaysia defines a Malay as someone who is a Muslim, speaks Malay, and practices Malay culture. The detainees were kept at the usual place used for ISA detainees, at Kamunting Detention Center.
Although most of the detainees were released either conditionally or unconditionally, 40 were issued detention order of two years. Included were Lim Kit Siang and Karpal Singh plus five other party colleagues, a number of PAS members and many social activists. A categorization of the initially named detainees, numbering 97, gives the following breakdown: political parties: 37; social movements: 23; individuals: 37.
Effects on political and press freedom
In any case, the incident provided Mahathir's government with the excuse to further tighten the executive stranglehold on politics.. In the following year, the Printing Presses and Publications Act was amended so that it more difficult for printers and publishers to retain printing licenses eliminating the renewal process. They would have to annually re-apply. In addition if any license is revoked, it could not be challenged in court. A prison term was added for publication of false news, jail sentence for up to three years.
The leading Malaysian English daily, The Star, was closed down for a few months. In the weeks prior to Operation Lalang, The Star had continuously provided transparent news coverage about the Opposition's point of view. This construed treason as far as the government was concerned, and they were shut down under Malaysia's repressive sedition laws. The Star resumed publication months later under new management that was installed by UMNO. Most of the previous staff were laid off or otherwise threatened with prison and ISA. From that point onwards, The Star, as well as many other media outlets in Malaysia, became government-controlled mouthpieces with an obvious pro-government slant. These media outlets were also noticeably whitewashing all of the UMNO government's wrongdoings and corruption. All the cover-up and whitewashing by the mass media became more obvious towards the late-90's, when another power struggle within UMNO (the Mahathir vs Anwar episode) revealed the extent of corruption and crimes among the UMNO executive that have never been revealed or reported.
Amendments were also made to the Police Act making it practically impossible to hold any political meeting, including a party's annual general meeting, without a police permit. A conviction could mean a fine of RM10,000 and a jail term of one year. Even an assembly of more than five people in a public area is considered an "illegal assembly" and could not be held without a police permit. This law was intentionally made to be so restrictive in order to give the police arbitrary rights to detain any group in public by citing it is an illegal assembly.
* Chow, Kum Hor (Nov. 6, 2005). "9/11 changed Hu's view of ISA". New Sunday Times, p. 8–9.
* Mahavera, Sheridan (Nov. 6, 2005). "'When you play with fire, you will get burnt'". New Sunday Times, p. 9.
* Othman, M. Husairy (Nov. 6, 2005). "Tajuddin bears no grudges". New Sunday Times, p. 9.
* Tan, Choe Choe (Nov. 6, 2005). "Sim taught detainees Chinese during his stay". New Sunday Times, p. 8.