It would be unwise to restore the Internal Security Act (ISA).
Of the many features of the ISA, it was detention without trial which had evoked widespread condemnation. Because it allowed incarceration without independent judicial evaluation of evidence, it was regarded as an affront to the rule of law and a violation of the principle of justice. Many Malaysians therefore welcomed the announcement by Prime Minister, Dato Sri Najib Razak, on 15 September 2011 to abolish the ISA.
Some of those who are now keen on the restoration of the ISA argue that the Executive should have the right to detain a person before he commits an act that threatens national security because we are a multi-ethnic society and extremism lurks just beneath the surface. Only preventive detention can curb ethnic or religious extremism from creating havoc in a society like ours.
This is a deeply flawed argument. If we have been able to keep extremism in check over the last 56 years, it is because the state has maintained a certain equilibrium in mediating competing ethnic interests; there is some scope for the expression of views that cannot be accommodated within that balance; there has been economic growth and a degree of distribution; and there is tolerance of cultural and religious diversity. Besides, the cultures of the various Malaysian communities cherish moderation and shun extremist acts that veer towards violence and upheaval. If the ISA has had any role at all in preserving social equilibrium, it has been minimal.
This is borne out by the political conduct of individuals detained under the ISA in the wake of ethnic unrest in the past. There is a politician who was imprisoned twice under the ISA in such circumstances and yet he continues to adopt communal stances on issues which reveal very little understanding of the feelings of the majority community. Then there is a politician from the majority community who was also detained twice under the ISA and yet remains utterly insensitive to the sentiments of the minorities to this day.
ISA will not change the attitudes, values and beliefs of those who are deeply immersed in a communal worldview. Often, this worldview is rooted in communal prejudices and antagonisms that have evolved over a lifetime. To throw such people into jail without a proper trial will only reinforce their communal anger and bitterness. In a society where communal attitudes are pervasive, they become heroes and martyrs among their own kind.
Rather than bring back the ISA, both state and society should address the root causes of communal thinking and work out feasible remedies. Opinion makers should also engage advocates of communal positions and persuade them to adopt a more balanced perspective. Organised public education on the ethnic situation in the country is equally important. Of course, laws also have a role to play in curbing extremism. The Harmony Act proposed some time ago may have a positive impact upon ethnic relations if it is properly conceived and effectively implemented.