Who ordered Operation Lalang: The Police or Mahathir? Who stood to gain or lose the most?

By P. Ramakrishnan

Ramakrishnan: “Who initiated Operation Lalang? Is it the police or Mahathir? Who benefits? Who stood to lose the most? Would it have made any difference to the IGP or to his force?”

Credit Fahmi Reza

To be in the news, you must speak sense! Or speak nonsense and you will be in the news as well!

How does Mahathir get into the news? My last article – Mahathir, the peddler of lies – exposed him as someone not speaking the truth. But it got his views published! Malaysiakini and Free Malaysia Today gave him good coverage!

These two blogs didn’t bother to carry my article – I suppose I spoke the truth and it hurt Mahathir! Nevertheless, it was carried by Aliran and received 12,772 hits in less than two days.

Many Malaysians would vehemently dispute Mahathir’s claim that he did not order Ops Lalang in 1987. According to him, that decision was made by the police.

From the point of probability, would you believe him? Let’s ask some simple questions to arrive at the truth!

Would the police act unilaterally in an issue that was bound to have a massive impact on the nation and cause political repercussions beyond Malaysia’s borders? Would the police undertake an action that would have serious implications for a serving prime minister? Would they act on their own? Would they dare?

It would hardly be possible! It’s even unthinkable! The police come under the Home Minister. And the Home Minister then was Mahathir. Would he have brooked their insolence? You don’t “play, play” with Mahathir!

Even before Operation Lalang was launched, the detention papers have to be signed – that is only logical! Who signed these detention papers? They were signed by none other than the Home Minister. Who was the Home Minister then?  It was Mahathir!

So Operation Lalang must have been premeditated and well-planned. Those to be detained have to be identified. It involved the IGP and the Home Minister working hand in hand to execute Operation Lalang. To be sure, it couldn’t have taken place without the acquiescence of Mahathir.

Operation Lalang involvedthe detention of 106 patriotic Malaysians who had never resorted to actions that would threaten national security or jeopardize national unity. They had never advocated armed struggle. They functioned within the democratic parameters.

But, nevertheless, they were detained beginning on 27 October 1987 with the first batch of 19 detentions which increased to 106 eventually. Shockingly, it was such a huge number of detentions during a time of peace. It was mind-boggling! It was unbelievable!

These Malaysians did not pose any danger to the country but, it was generally believed, they were certainly a real threat to Mahathir and his hold on power. They exposed his shortcomings and abuse of power. That eroded his political standing and stature. That he could not tolerate! He was under threat and he had to consolidate his power by all means!

It was insane to blame these critics as a threat to national security. How could a small group of academics, social activists, prominent members of non-government organizations, women, religious leaders, educationists, unionists and a La Salle brother mount an action that would threaten the security of the nation? How could they topple a duly elected government when there was no general election pending at that time?

All the same, they were all detained together with politicians and Members of Parliament. There was no need for justification. There was no need to convince the people at large. The ISA took care of it! You don’t have to be transparent; you don’t have to be accountable. You do as you please under the ISA!

Strangely, those who deserved to be detained were spared simply because it was a selective detention. The provocateurs were from Umno and the chief culprit was the Umno Youth leader, Najib Razak.

Some 10,000 Malays turned up at a mass rally at Jalan Raja Muda in Kuala Lupur on 17 October 1987 – 10 days before Operation Lalang – with banners displaying  slogans: “MAY 13 HAS BEGUN” and “SOAK IT (KERIS) WITH CHINESE BLOOD.”

Wasn’t this a criminal intimidation? It was a blatant call to go after the non-Malays, particularly the Chinese. Did anyone of the 106 detainees ever call for blood to be shed? Did they go on a rampage in working up their supporters into a frenzy of hatred?

More was planned!

Posters were plastered all over the country urging Umno members to come to KL for a mammoth rally which was expected to involve half a million Umno members. They were keeping the cauldron on the boil very likely to inflame racial tensions that could erupt into ethnic clashes with serious consequences for the nation.

But Najib was not detained!

What took place on 27 October 1987 became world news. It stunned the international community. It affected the image of Malaysia as a democratic nation.

When so much was at stake, and the repercussions were many, do you think that this action will be left entirely to the discretion of the police? It is absurd! No one will believe that lie!

Before the onslaught against these activists, it was a known fact that Umno was split in the middle. Tunku Razaleigh and Musa Hitam joined forces to take on Mahathir. They stood a very good chance to unseat Mahathir as president of Umno. That would have meant the end for Mahathir in Umno politics!

What went wrong?

It was widely speculated that Najib Razak, the Umno Youth leader who had thrown his lot with Kuli and Musa, betrayed them at the last moment by switching sides to support Mahathir. That was how Mahathir’s skin was saved! To win party elections we need betrayals and traitors, and these were up for sale for cash and promise and available to the highest bidder.

There was also the case of some Umno dissidents from Kuli’s camp going to court to challenge the irregularities in the conduct of the Umno elections. With this thing hanging over Mahathir’s head, he was a very worried man!

So we come back to the central question: Who initiated Operation Lalang? Is it the police or Mahathir?

Que bono, or, in Latin, who benefits? Who stood to lose the most? Would it have made any difference to the IGP or to his force?

Would it have made all the difference to Mahathir if there was no Operation Lalang? Certainly, it would have. In less than four months, in February 1988, Umno was declared an illegal society by the court.

Following parliamentary convention, Mahathir would have to resign as prime minister. He would then be party-less and powerless. He would be without a base. He would be no better than an ordinary citizen with no power to pull strings!

Without Operation Lalang, Mahathir would not have been in control. He would not have been in a position to compel the ROS to register Umno Baru over the weekend and be back in the saddle of power.

And Mahathir was back in power, riding rough shod over all that was considered sacrosanct in a democracy!

So who ordered Operation Lalang? What do you think?

As for me, I’ll go along with Bapa Malaysia, our beloved Tunku Abdul Rahman’s observation. While the justification given was that this was necessary to defuse the racial tension at the time, the Tunku put it bluntly:

“Umno was facing a break-up. The prime minister, Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s hold on the party appeared critical when election rigging was alleged to have given him a very narrow victory against Tengku Razaleigh Hamzah.

“The case alleging irregularities brought by Umno members was pending in court. If the judgment went against him, he would have no choice but to step down. So he had to find a way out of his predicament. A national crisis had to be created to bring Umno together as a united force to fight a common enemy – and the imaginary enemy in this case was the Chinese community … Overnight, Malaysia has become a police state …”

Nobody would believe that Mahathir was not the mastermind of the Operation Lalang arrests to consolidate his power position in Umno. Simply put, he benefited!

27 March 2023

FIrst published at this link.

(The views expressed are those of the contributor and do not necessarily reflect the views of Rebuilding Malaysia.)

P Ramakrishnan is the long-serving former president of Aliran who served three and a half decades on its executive committee, has been with Aliran since its inception in 1977. Now an ordinary Aliran member, he continues to highlight issues of public interest to a larger audience.

Rebuilding Malaysia

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