KUALA LUMPUR • On Oct 27, 1987, Malaysian police nabbed 106 people - mostly opposition politicians, social activists and teachers - under draconian security laws that allowed detention without trial, striking a black mark in the country's democratic history .
At the time police said the extensive crackdown, dubbed Ops Lalang, was necessary to weed out trouble-makers and calm racial tensions stoked by rhetoric over the administration of Chinese vernacular schools.
Many, however, believed that the mass arrests, soon followed by the closure of three newspapers, were masterminded by then Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad to shore up support within Malay party Umno.
Thirty years later Tun Dr Mahathir, now an opposition leader, insists the operation was purely a police decision and that he had little choice but to go along, reported The Star Online yesterday. He told the news site he signed the detention papers issued under the now-repealed Internal Security Act (ISA) on police advice. He was also Home Minister at the time.
Among those arrested in 1987 was Lim Kit Siang, stalwart of the Democratic Action Party (DAP), which is today one of the parties in opposition pact Pakatan Harapan alongside Dr Mahathir's Parti Pribumi Bersatu Malaysia.
Dr Mahathir yesterday said his personal perspective on many of those arrested in the operation has changed with the passage of time and circumstance.
"When I was in the government, I vilified them because I wanted to win the elections. But they're not as bad as I made them out to be then.
"Now I am together with them. And I have become close to them," he said in the interview.
THEN AND NOW
When I was in the government, I vilified them because I wanted to win the elections. But they're not as bad as I made them out to be then. Now I am together with them. And I have become close to them.
TUN DR MAHATHIR MOHAMAD
The former premier said the then-Inspector-General of Police Tun Hanif Omar had told him that as prime minister he needed to listen to the police chief's advice on issues of national security.
"He said that. And in truth, I did not fight against the police because I depend on them. Security is the work of the police.
"So if he says we need to catch this person, then go ahead. But as long as I can release them as soon as possible," Dr Mahathir said.
According to the news site, Dr Mahathir stood by the police's actions at the time, saying the government took decisive action to "forestall a trend that could turn Malaysia into another Ireland or Lebanon".
Ops Lalang took place after the Education Ministry appointed 100 senior assistants and supervisors at Chinese vernacular schools, prompting a 2,000-strong demonstration on Oct 11, 1987, involving political parties DAP and the Malaysian Chinese Association (MCA) as well as the United Chinese School Committees' Association of Malaysia.
The youth wing of Umno led by Mr Najib Razak, who is now Prime Minister, held a counter-protest, calling for the resignation of MCA deputy president Lee Kim Sai.
It is alleged Dr Mahathir approved Ops Lalang after narrowly defending his presidency in Umno.
A day after the arrests, the Home Ministry withdrew the printing licences of four newspapers - The Star and Sunday Star, Sin Chew Jit Poh and Watan. The newspapers regained their licences in 1988.