Operation Lalang

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Operation Lalang (Operasi Lalang; Weeding Operation, also referred to as Ops Lalang) was a major crackdown carried out beginning 27 October 1987 by the Malaysian police, ostensibly to prevent the occurrence of racial riots in Malaysia. The operation saw the arrest of 106 persons –NGO activists, opposition politicians, intellectuals, students, artists, scientists and others–under the Internal Security Act (ISA). It also involved 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 notion that racial riots were imminent however is contested, and it is widely believed that the operation was designed to control the political opponents of the Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad through draconian measures.


The political developments which brought about this second largest ISA swoop in Malaysian history since the 13 May riots, were sparked ostensibly by mounting political tensions with strong racial overtones. According to the Government 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. It was claimed by the government that this supposed racial tension in some way made the arrests "necessary" and further forced the government to act "swiftly and firmly" to contain the situation.

The crackdown happened against a backdrop in late 1986 and 1987 of a a split in UMNO and a major leadership crisis whereby Mahatir was challenged for the leadership, and a legal challenge on the resulting narrow win by Mahatir.[1] There were also attacks by the government on several non-governmental organizations (NGO) which were critical of various government policies, and Mahatir called these "intellectual elites" as "tools of foreign powers" and saboteurs of democracy.[2] A number of race and religion-related issues arose which had a cumulative effect in raising ethnic tension, such as the switch to Malay language as a medium of instruction for optional courses in the departments of Chinese and Tamil studies at the University of Malaya,[2] use of Chinese characters in certain signboards,[3] as well as rumours of forced conversion to or from Islam.[2] The immediate cause however was the government appointment of more than 100 teachers to Chinese schools.

Vernacular Chinese school personnel controversy[edit]

The sensitive issues were brought on by opposition concerns over the Ministry of Education's appointments of some 100 senior assistants and supervisors to vernacular Chinese schools (Chinese-medium primary schools, for which the government provides funding and personnel and sets the school curriculum. School assets, however, belong to local Chinese communities represented by the respective boards of trustees). It was learnt that those appointed were Chinese who were not Chinese-educated, implying that students and parents might be forced to use English or Malay to communicate with the school personnel. Chinese educationalist groups contended that the move would limit the usage of Chinese in the schools.

On 11 October 1987, a 2,000-strong gathering was held by the United Chinese School Committees Association of Malaysia (UCSCAM, the association of Chinese school teachers and trustees, also known as Dong Jiao Zong) at the Hainanese Association Building, beside the Thean Hou Temple in Kuala Lumpur, which was joined by prominent politicians from Chinese-based parties such as the deputy president of Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) Lee Kim Sai, the leader of Democratic Action Party (DAP) Lim Kit Siang, as well as representatives from GERAKAN and other parties. The meeting resolved to call a three-day boycott in Chinese schools if the government did not settle the appointments issue.[4] The boycott was called off at the eleventh hour, nevertheless 57 schools went ahead with the strike on the 15th of October.[5]

Response by UMNO Youth and detentions[edit]

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 Jalan Raja Muda Stadium in Kuala Lumpur on 17 October.[4] UMNO politicians had begun to condemn MCA leaders (both UMNO and MCA are component parties of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition) 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. While the Prime Minister Dr. Mahatir was away abroad, Sanusi Junid, the UMNO party secretary-general and other UMNO leaders called for the holding of a mammoth rally in KL on 1 November to celebrate its 41st Anniversary, originally to be held in Johor Bahru but later changed to Kuala Lumpur, which it was claimed would see the attendance of half a million members, even though the stadium on which it was to be held could only hold 60,000. The rally was cancelled by the Prime Minister after he returned.[4]

The proposed UMNO rally was given as the reason by the Inspector General of Police for the 27 October crackdown. It was argued that had the rally been held, it could have sparked off racial riots given the likely incendiary nature of the speeches of UMNO politicians. To make matters worse, a tinder box situation was created by an unrelated event on 18 October - the rampage of a Malay soldier who killed a Malay and injuring two other persons with an M16 rifle in the Chow Kit area, which straddles two large Chinese and Malay communities.[4][6]

Najib Tun Razak, then chairman of the UMNO Youth wing, had led a massive Malay rally in Kampung Baru, Kuala Lumpur. During the rally, Najib was alleged to have threatened to soak a keris in Chinese blood, evoking fear of 13 May repeating within the Chinese community.[7][8][9] Many Chinese businesses around the city was closed for a few days for fear of any potential attacks from the Malay ultra-nationalists.[10][11][12][13]

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 27 October 1987, Dr Mahatir launched an operation he said was necessary to defuse racial tension that had reached "dangerous proportions". The Inspector General of Police Tan Sri Hanif Omar said the police operation was for the sake of national security, and had nothing to do with politics.[14]

The immediate effect of the operation, codenamed lalang after a type of weed, was the arrest of a number of prominent political leaders, social activists and others, starting on 27 October and lasting until 14 November 1987.[4] The publication licences of three newspapers were revoked. Mahatir also announced a nationwide ban on any gathering or rally, including those previously approved. Later in December 1987, Dr Mahatir introduced two pieces of legislation to impose additional restrictions on publications and grant police greater powers to curb public gatherings.[15]


The Prime Minister gave the approval for the arrest of 106 people, later increased to 119, under the Internal Security Act.[4][16] Among the more prominent detainees were opposition leader and DAP Secretary-General Lim Kit Siang, 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 Zong (Chinese Education Associations) Chairman Lim Fong Seng, Publicity Chief of the Civil Rights Committee Kua Kia Soong, and WAO member Irene Xavier. The MCA deputy president Lee Kim Sai had apparently been warned and he left for Australia for a few months.[17]

Of the politicians arrested, three were UMNO members, eight MCA, five Gerakan, fifteen PAS, sixteen DAP, and two PSRM. The three UMNO members arrested were closely associated with Mahatir's rivals called Team B, even though the UMNO's rallies were supported and initiated by Mahatir's allies (a further UMNO member who was Mahatir's ally was said to have been detained for an unrelated reason). The UMNO, MCA and Gerakan detainees were released within two months, while those from the opposition parties and NGOs were detained much longer.[18][19]

The majority of the detainees had no connection with the events in Kuala Lumpur, for example, several Baptist Church members in Petaling Jaya were arrested for allegedly converting seven Malays, and at least nine PAS members were arrested for making claims about Christians converting Malays. Many of those detained were also not involved in creating racial tensions; for example, Chandra Muzzafar, chairman of Aliran whose philosophy involves intercommunal cooperation, and members of Insan, a social reformist group that campaigned against exploitation of the poor, and Environment Protection Society of Malaysia, were also arrested.[19] 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, 49 were served with a two-year detention order, and the last one was freed in April 1989.[4] Included were Lim Kit Siang and Karpal Singh plus five other party colleagues, a number of PAS members and many social activists. A categorisation of the initially named detainees, numbering 97, gives the following breakdown: political parties: 37; social movements: 23; individuals: 37.

Curtailing of the press[edit]

In October 1987, the licences of the English language newspapers The Star and Sunday Star, the Chinese language Sin Chew Jit Poh, and the Malay language Watan were withdrawn.[20] Tunku Abdul Rahman, who wrote a column for The Star, said that "we are on the road to dictatorship", a comment which wasn't reported by the other newspapers.[21] The Star and Sin Chew Jit Poh resumed publication five months later the following year, however Watan never recovered from it and closed its doors permanently in 1996. In the aftermath of the crackdown on newspapers and a subsequent legislation on press activity, editorials of newspaper started to self-censor and became cautious about the stories they ran. Newspapers were also advised by the Home Ministry to avoid certain issues, and editors were even called for briefings with various ministries on the way a subject should be covered.[22] The Star itself, after its return, never regained its previous 'liberal flavour'.[23]

The Printing Presses and Publications Act was amended to make printers and publishers re-apply their licences annually, and established an ouster clause preventing revocation of any license by the Home Affairs Minister from being called into question by the courts.[24] A new criminal offence of "maliciously publishing false news" which carries a three-year jail sentence and/or fines was also added.[25][26] The Act was subsequently amended in 2012 to remove the requirement for annual licence application and the government's 'absolute discretion' over permits, and reinstated judicial overview.[25]

Amendments to the Police Act[edit]

Amendments were also made to the Police Act to restrict right to free assembly by making a police permit mandatory for public gatherings.[27] It required that any assembly of more than five people in a public area to obtain a police permit 14 days before the assembly. The law also prohibited public rallies for electoral campaigns, and only allowed ceramah (public lecture) by the political parties which would also require a permit.[28] It made 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.

According to Dr Mahatir, the amendments to the Police Act and the Printing Presses and Publications Act were aimed at individuals and groups who abused the government's liberal attitudes: "Being liberal to them is like offering a flower to a monkey. The monkey would rather tear the flower apart than appreciate its beauty".[15]

Significance and assessment[edit]

Operation Lalang was a major event in Mahatir's administration that had a strong impact on civil liberties in Malaysia.[2] To the opposition parties, Operation Lalang came to symbolise 'injustice' and government 'oppression'.[29] The operation is seen as the beginning of Mahatir's authoritarian rule which continued in the following year with the sacking of the Supreme Court judges in the 1988 Malaysian constitutional crisis.[30]

Although Operation Lalang was ostensibly undertaken for reason of national security, it was also seen by some as an excuse by the Mahatir government to tighten the executive hold by restricting fundamental liberties,[31] and commentators read it as a show of force by Mahatir against his political challengers.[32] It created considerable fear inside and outside UMNO, and Lim Kit Siang, one of the detainees, later argued that the ISA arrests were more directed against UMNO rather than the racial crisis, and that Mahatir allowed the situation to escalate so he could then crack down and consolidate his position against his internal rivals.[33]

Dr Mahatir would later expressed regret in his memoir about the severity of Operation Lalang, but suggested that it was a result of the police recommending strong action. He said that the government response had probably been "excessive and disproportionate", and that the operation was a "permanent blot on my time in office" and "a black mark in the administrative history of Malaysia". But, he added, "I had to suppress my own personal doubts and feelings. I had to recognize the role and expertise of the police and defer to their exercising their appointed role in our system of government."[21]


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