The day of the dictator – Oct 27, 1987
The Day of the Dictator
Twenty-five years ago today, the first Umno Malay Civil War caused the arrests of at least 106 civilians in the infamous Operation Lallang (Operasi Lalang, in Malay) when the beleaguered Mahathir Mohamad government used the political turmoil that had been festering through the year to detain opposition politicians (and a few from Umno), Chinese educationists, academicians and activists, priests and a Malay Christian convert.
It was clear then, as it is now, that the detentions and the subsequent climate of fear were aimed at ensuring Mahathir’s survival. The events of 1987 would subsequently lead to the judiciary’s loss of independence, tighter restriction on the media, and a free hand for Mahathir and his political and business cronies. The Constitution was ripped apart, with one of the three Estates left in limbo.
The country has still to recover from that grievous wound.
Things had come to a head earlier in the year, when Mahathir Mohamad was challenged for the leadership of Umno, for the first time since he took power 12 years before. Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah had teamed up with Musa Hitam (“Team B”) to take on Mahathir and his gang.
At the Umno general assembly on April 24, Mahathir narrowly survived, by 43 votes, against Tengku Razaleigh, whose Team B managed only to win a third of the seats on the Umno supreme council.
Tensions had been growing in Umno in the three years after Tengku Razaleigh had been replaced as finance minister by Mahathir’s partner Daim Zainuddin. Malaysia had just come through two years of a global economic recession in 1984-85, but there was growing discontent about Mahathir’s privatisation policies to selected cronies, as well as his authoritarian style.
After the party election, a suit was filed on June 25 by “the Umno 11” — a group of Umno members (one had dropped out) who sought a court declaration to have the Umno elections overturned, on the ground that 78 illegal members were among the delegates at the Umno general assembly, and that documents had been tampered with.
On Sept 30, the High Court gave the two sides a fortnight to settle it between themselves. There was a standoff: Razaleigh’s side wanted new elections, Mahathir’s camp offered a “face-saving solution” if they accepted the results. On Oct 19, the Umno 11 said the suit would proceed.Tensions had been further heightened when on May 21, the Singapore government carried out a security crackdown, alleging a Marxist conspiracy “to subvert the existing social and political system … to establish a Marxist state”. They were 16 mostly English-educated people comprising a mix of church workers, social workers, graduates and professionals. It prompted fears of repercussions in Malaysia.
In the midst of all that, Chinese educationists had been unhappy with the posting of non-Mandarin-speaking heads of Chinese schools by the Education Ministry (then headed by Anwar Ibrahim).
Political temperatures had been rising.
As the Barisan Nasional’s Chinese-based parties added their voices to the ruckus raised by Dong Xiao Zong and the DAP, a rally was called on Oct 11 next to Thean Hou temple.
Umno Youth, headed by Najib Razak, reacted by calling a counter-rally for Oct 17 at TPCA Stadium in Jalan Raja Muda, with Najib threatening to call out 500,000 into the streets. A year earlier, in November 1986, Umno Youth had held a demonstration at Putra World Trade Centre to protest against a statement by Lee Kim Sai that all three major races in Malaysia had arrived through immigration and only the Orang Asli were pribumi.
The TPCA stadium rally was a heated affair with cries for blood. Najib Razak was reputed to have drawn a keris and threatened to bathe it in blood, and there were other blood-curling statements made, including cries of “another May 13”.
The very next day, Kuala Lumpur and the metropolitan area went into curfew shutdown mode when a Malay Regiment soldier from an Ipoh camp, private Adam Jaffar, allegedly went amok in the Chow Kit area, loosing off his M16 automatic assault rifle: an elderly Chinese man died after being hit by a ricochet, and several others were wounded.
Rumours of shootings and deaths in Chow Kit, and memories of the 1969 race riots spread throughout the city, heightening the tension, which worsened through the hours of a 30-hour siege when Pvt Adam refused to surrender to the police, demanding to see his unit commander. He was finally taken into custody by the military before being put on trial.
A day later, the Umno 11 raised the ante against Mahathir. They rejected making a deal with Mahathir and announced the suit would proceed.
It was against that fast-moving backdrop of intense Umno Malay rivalry and racial and political tension, that the police began their swoop in the early hours on Oct 26. They called it an act of national security. But it was all for Umno’s security, and for the job security of Mahathir Mohamad.Who paid the price for Mahathir’s greed and ambition? Lim Kit Siang, Karpal Singh, Chandra Muzaffar, Kua Kia Soong, Chan Kit Chee, Lim Fung Seng, Halim Arshat (PAS Youth), Ibrahim Ali (MP for Pasir Mas), Mohamed Fahmi Ibrahim (Umno Youth), academicians, a Catholic brother and a Christian pastor, and a Malay Christian convert — there were 37 from political parties; 23 from social movements; 37 individuals before the police told the New Straits Times to stop providing a breakdown of the arrests.
The Star, Sunday Star, Sin Chew, and Watan were shut down: their publishing licences withdrawn.
Malaysia had come to another watershed, the second after May 13, 1969.
It was the day autocracy gained the upper hand over democracy.