Detention Without Trial:  Has the Time for
Abolition Come?
(Part 2)

Dato’ Dr. Rais Yatim
Advocate & Solicitor, High Court of Malaya


Steep criticisms on the ISA have been numerous.  It is helpful to sample a few.  In the words of the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) the ISA is “a comprehensive and exhaustive legislation for the executive”.  A local MP had declared that “This infernal and heinous instrument has been enacted… a time when the Emergency was supposed to be over.  Then it promptly proceeds to embody all the provisions of the Emergency Regulations which during the Emergency had to be re-enacted every year, but now it is written into the statute book ad infinitum…”2   Even Prime Minister Dr. Mahathir Mohamed, while being a government backbencher in 1966, admitted that “no one in his right senses like the ISA.  It is in fact a negation of all the principles of democracy.”3

In Malaysia, as partly indicated in the opening remarks of this paper, apart from detention under the ISA, there are several other types of executive legislation among which are those connected with public order and the prevention of crime,4 restricted residence,5 dangerous drugs,6 immigration confinement,7 police powers,8 the control over affairs of student activities9  and a host of other overriding executive powers over the civil rights of the individual.  In fact powers of arrest and detention under these instruments are so varied that one finds areas of overlap and duplication.  While the RRE’s s.2(1) is the mainstay for restricting a subject to a specific area or district pursuant to a restricting order of the Minister, this sort of restriction is also allowed with extra amplifications under s.8(5) of the ISA.10  The Public Order (Preservation) Act 1958 (POPA)11  for instance, empowers the police to arrest and detain a suspect for 24 hours without warrant.12  Under the Criminal Procedure Code a suspect may also be arrested and detained by the police for up to 15 days with the authority of the magistrate.13  Although the Emergency (Public Order and Prevention of Crime) Ordinance 1969 (EPOPCO) is an emergency instrument promulgated by the Yang Di Pertuan Agong under s.2 of the Emergency (Essential Powers) Ordinance 196914  (EEPO), it has at its disposal powers of arrest and detention that are similar to those under the purview of the ISA.   The EPOPCO is an equally draconian instrument in that police and ministerial powers are similar to those enforced under the ISA.  The only difference is in their target groups: the ISA is in the main activated against offences related to security while the EPOPCO is mainly concerned with hardcore crimes which do not have sufficient evidence for the purpose of prosecution in a court of law.  However, these target groups are not well-defined and thus the authorities may indeed swap the political group with the criminal one if the whim so exists.

 In The Cheng Poh v. Public Prosecutor15  the Privy Council decided that the law-making power of the Yang Di Pertuan Agong under s.2 of the Emergency (Essential Powers) Ordinance 1969 (EEPO) during normal peace time (when Parliament was sitting) was found to be ultra vires  the Constitution.  Thus, all subsidiary legislation made thereunder including the disputed Emergency (Security Cases) Regulation 1975 (ESCAR) were bad in law.  The Government revalidated the EEPO and all subsidiary laws passed thereunder16  by way of an Act of Parliament called the Emergency (Essential Powers) Act 197917  (EEPA).  The EEPA, being a general blanket endorsement for all things done and omitted in the course of an emergency re-created the emergency ‘creatures’ including the EPOPCO and the ESCAR and thus projects the notion that the country is still under emergency rule.

The ISA, however, remains the most controversial and repressive of these laws in terms of the unbridled powers accorded to the respective authorities.  Indeed the severity of the ISA is such that it could easily pass as a wartime legislation, comparable to the infamous Regulation 18B of the Defence of the Realm Act 1939 in the United Kingdom that made Liversidge v. Anderson18  the cornerstone of the subjective determination of executive power in case involving the security of the State.

 At this juncture it is constructive to offer some illustrations in regard to those who had suffered as detainees without trial.  While thousands have their names on record as detainees for the period 1960 up to the present, few had come forward to share their experiences behind the wire.19   Whilst there have been few reported cases involving torture during Ministerial detention under s.8, “tales of torture” while undergoing  police detention under s.73 have been quite rampant.20   Police brutality has been alleged to have taken place.21   The following account may be regarded as being typical:

Interrogation techniques were altered to humiliate and frighten the detainees and to identify their weaknesses.  Verbal abuse were common.  Some were threatened with physical harm to themselves or to their spouses.  Others were stripped naked during interrogation, or forced to crawl on the floor, collecting cigarette butts purposely scattered there.  One was repeatedly made to walk blindfolded so that he would bump into walls.22

One detainee, a convert to Christianity, recalled, “Various attempts were made…to coerce or induce me to renounce Christianity and to convert back to Islam against my will.”23   Another detainee described the long hours of interrogation as “almost non-stop for 24 hours in the first four days of [his] arrest with hardly any rest.”  Sitting on a stool, he was forced to write for more than 80 hours [in four days] on events in his life, some of which occurred more than 13 years previously.24   Prof Dr. Syed Husin Ali, a notable university professor, detained for about six years under s.8, described his arrest as involving the police “kicking” his front door in when he did not hurry enough in opening it.  He was spat upon and received inhuman treatment purely on account of his involvement in a political party that opposed the government.25   In a graphic recount of his detention horror in 1994, the university don said that he was forced to announce his affiliation to communism.  Of this and incidental matters connected with his detention, he said:

They wanted me to use the communist bogey on Mahathir and Musa……they told me I would be released if I implicated Mahathir and Musa.  They slapped me, denied me sleep, spat in my face, told lies about my wife and even placed a pistol in front of me.  It was a terrible lie and being a Muslim, I would not be part of it.26

Two trade unionists were detained under s.8 for almost 12 years for alleged pro-communist activities.27   Kassim Ahmad, a noted academic and political leader was denied legal representation during the first two weeks of his arrest.  The authorities also took away his Quran and prayer mat.28   The general conditions of a police lock-up, used in the course of police interrogations has been described as “dirty, congested and degrading.”29   Indeed description of the general conditions in a Malaysian police cell have never been complimentary.

A former cabinet minister who was detained in 1970 described his sojourn in a Kuala Lumpur lock-up prior to detention proper as “most appalling” in that he was made to sleep on a bed hardened by coconut husks with no blanket.30   There is a considerable literature consisting of personal account’s of detention in the past decade by ex-detainees.  The collegiate of notable ex-detainees in Malaysia is an ever-enlarging circle.  Students, lecturers, writers, lawyers, trade unionists and even Ministers have either written personal accounts of their experiences under detention or alternatively related them to others.31


The basic attitude of judges vis--vis detention cases is that they cannot go beyond the written word of the law.  What Parliament wants in the cold printed word of the statute the law lords must given effect to them.  Although this rule is age-old, this was reiterated nine years ago by Edgar Joseph Jr. in Koh Yoke Koon v. Minister for Home Affairs & Anor.32

"In a case in which the liberty of the subject is concerned, we cannot go beyond the natural construction of the statute.”

However, when high precepts such as the rules of natural justice are denied or when canons of interpretation are misled the courts have proven to be amenable to granting the aggrieved party the freedom sought.

The right to seek a writ of habeas corpus pursuant to arrest or detention had always been held to be sacrosanct and in top priority and our courts have not flinched from this duty.  In Yeap Hock Seng v. Minister of Home Affairs  Malaysia33 Abdoolcader J said:

The grant of habeas corpus is as of right and not in the discretion of the court as in the case of such extraordinary legal remedies as certiorari, prohibition and mandamus.  It is a writ of right…”34

However,, since after the denial of judicial review of ministerial acts under the ISA in 1989 it would appear that habeas corpus  applications have been greatly minimised.  This has been so on account of the fact that after 1989 only procedural matters connected with the detention may be questioned in court.

The right to be heard pursuant to police arrest and interrogation as permitted under Article 5(3)35  appears to be intact although habeas corpus application with a view to the release of the detainee cannot be entertained simply because the right to consult a lawyer of the detainee’s choice was refused or delayed.  In the Singapore case Lee Mau Seng v. Minister for Home Affairs Singapore36  it was emphasised that “…the right to consult a legal practitioner of one’s choice is an entirely different concept from the concept of detention without trial and they can exist together.”37   This decision has been followed in Malaysia over the years for the broad proposition that the detainee’s right under Article 5(3) is intact despite being detained under the ISA.  However, the right to consult lawyer of one’s choice cannot be allowed immediately upon arrest.  The courts have given the police a reasonable time to interrogate and collect evidence before a lawyer is allowed to counsel.  This is the rule established in Ooi Ah Phua v. Officer-in-Charge, Criminal Investigation, Kedah/Perlis.38   However, since Ooi’s case in 1975, lawyers have been almost invariably refused the right to see his detenu client within the 60-day interrogation period.  The rampant reason given has always been that the police are still investigating the detenu and therefore counsel has to wait.

The stand that the courts cannot go beyond a valid legal detention order has been consistently followed over the years, at least since Karam Singh v Menteri Hal Ehwal Dalam Negeri.39   This case is the ‘transfer mould’ of the decision in Liversidge v. Anderson,40 a war-time case that established the principle that once the minister determines the necessity to detain a subject pursuant to a valid detention order, the courts could not go behind that order even though the adduced grounds in court for detaining a person are not the same as those in the original detention order.  It also stood for the proposition that the subjective finding of the minister could not be challenged unless it was given in bad faith.

In 1988, while still adhering to the subjective test, the Supreme Court, led by Salleh Abas LP clarified the scope of the ISA.  In Inspector-General of Police v. Tan Sri Raja Khalid bin Raja Harun41 the appellant, a bank director, being investigated for breach of trust, was detained under the ISA.  The Supreme Court dismissed an appeal by the IGP who objected to the grant of habeas corpus by the High Court below on the ground that it was incumbent upon the court to go beyond the general grounds of the detention.  In this case the court took cognisance of the facts relating to the arrest and detention of the appellant which were freely given by the police and the trial judge found it ‘incredible’ for the detainee to be subject to detention under the ISA.  The Supreme Court appeared to be making a distinction between grounds and facts of detention.  Where, as in this case, the facts were freely given, the detaining authority could later preclude the court form inferring from them.  The allege offence of criminal breach of trust could not be the basis for the appellant’s detention and therefore it was found to be outside the scope of the ISA.  Likewise, in Minister for Home Affairs Malaysia v. Jamaluddin bin Othman42  Hashim Yeop Sani SCJ also upheld a High Court judgment  which had granted habeas corpus to the applicant who was alleged to be involved in converting some Malays to Christianity because the grounds were insufficient to fall within the scope of the Act.  His finding on Article 11 is sterling:

The guarantee provided by article 11 of the Federal Constitution, that is, the freedom to profess and practice one’s religion, must be given effect to unless the actions of a person go well beyond what can normally be regarded as professing and practising one’s religion.43

The courts were vigilant enough to ensure freedom when the grounds of arrest were found to be factually incorrect.  In Karpal Singh v. Menteri Hal Ehwal Dalam Negeri44  Karpal Singh was slapped with 6 grounds upon his arrest under s. 73(1) of the ISA.  One of the grounds was found to be factually wrong because on the date he was supposed to have made ‘the inciting speech’ Karpal was elsewhere.  Peh Swee Chin J in allowing the application outlined three exceptions to the non-justiciability of the Minister’s mental satisfaction in cases of this kind.  They were (a) mala fide, (b) the stated grounds of detention not being within the scope of the enabling legislation and (c) the  failure to comply with a condition precedent.  He determined that mala fide does not only mean a malicious intent.  It normally covered a situation where a power was exercised for a collateral or ulterior purpose, i.e. for a purpose other than the purpose for which it is professed to have been exercised.45   He elaborated:

Thus a court cannot inquire into the sufficiency, vagueness and relevancy of any grounds of such detention vide Karam Singh’s case.  The word “relevancy” requires some fine tuning, in my view, from the cases decided by the courts,.  Relevancy that the court cannot inquire into does not, however, extend to any case where the grounds of detention stated are not within the scope of the enabling legislation….

Upon leaving the High Court on his way home, Karpal Singh was rearrested and detained under a new and separate detention order signed by the Minister.  Anticipating that the decision in this case would adversely affect future detentions, the Government appealed to nullify Karpal Singh v. Menteri Hal Ehwal Dalam Negeri.46   In Minister of Home Affairs & Anor. v. Karpal Singh47  the Supreme Court overruled Peh J’s decision in the earlier Karpal Singh case, citing that the sufficiency or insufficiency of the grounds of detention was not a matter for the court to decide.  Thus, the Supreme Court decision obliterated any hope of the future utilisation of a similar objective test.48

Somehow, events in Malaysia and Singapore in 1988 appear to have converged, at least in relation to amending the law on preventive detention.  Soon after Chng’s case in Singapore where Wee Chong Jin CJ made the historic finding that the objective test and not the subjective test of the detaining authorities was to be the future yardstick to determine the legality of future detention, the Singapore Parliament amended its ISA whereby no acts or omissions of the detaining authorities were to be questioned in any court of law and further, all forms of judicial review in this regard was disallowed.

 Malaysia, without much ado, did likewise and by way of the Internal Security (Amendment) Act 198949  judicial review in whatever form was disallowed in respect of the ISA, EPOPCO and the SPMA.  The new section 8B(1) of the ISA reads:

There shall be no judicial review in any court, of, and no court shall have or exercise any jurisdiction in respect of, any act done or decision made by the Yang Di Pertuan Agong or the Minister in the exercise of their discretionary power in accordance with this Act, save in regard to any question on compliance with any procedural requirements in this Act governing such act or decision.50

  1. See ICJ Report on Malaysia 1989
  2. Statement by Tan Chee Khoon (MP for Batu), Parliamentary Debates, Dewan Rakyat, 22 March 1966, Clmn.6865.
  3. The statement was made in the course of debating the Internal Security (Amendment) Bill 1966 which Dr. Mahathir supported.  See Parliamentary Debates, Dewan Rakyat, 22 March 1966 Clmn.6882.
  4. The Public Order (Preservation) Act 1958 (Act 296), Prevention of Crime Ordinance 1959, and Emergency (Public Order and Prevention of Crime) Ordinance 1969 (EPOPCO) as revalidated in 1979.  These three instruments are indeed confusing in that their titles, just as their contents, bear many similarities inter se.
  5. The Restricted Residence Enactment 1933 (Cap.39).
  6. See the Dangerous Drugs Act, 1952 (Act 234); The Dangerous Drugs (Forfeiture of Property) Act 1988; The Dangerous Drugs (Regulations) 1989 and the Dangerous Drugs (Special Preventive Measures) Act 1985.  See also The Dangerous Drugs (Rules) 1987.
  7. The Immigration Act 1959/1963 (Act 155); The Passports Act 1966 (Act 150)
  8. The Police Act 1967, s.27
  9. Universities and University Colleges Act 1971 c.i.f. 30.4.1971
  10. Under s.8(5)(a) of the ISA the Minister may restrict a person not only with respect to his activities but also to a special place of residence, restriction of indoor life – s.8(5)(b); informing the police of his movements – s.8(5)(c); prohibiting from making public speeches s.8(5)(d); prohibiting from travelling outside of Malaysia s.8(5)(e).
  11. Act 296/1958
  12. Section 17 Public Order (Preservation) Act 1958 (POPA)
  13. Section 117 Criminal Procedure Code (Cap.6 FMS)
  14. P.U.(A) 187/1969
  15. (1980) AC458
  16. Some of the major emergency statutes passed under authority of Article 150(2) of the Constitution:  Emergency (Public Order and Prevention of Crime) Ordinance No.5/1969 [EPOPCO]; Emergency (Essential (Essential Powers) Ordinance No.7 [PU(A) 307A 1969; Emergency (Essential Powers) Ordinance No.22 [PU(A) 73/1970; Emergency (Essential Powers) Ordinance 1970 No.51 [PU(A) 357/1970]
  17. Act 216 c.i.f. 20.2.1971
  18. (1941) a.c.206
  19. Prominent opposition leaders of political parties have had their share of being detained under the ISA.  Lim Kit Siang, leader of the DAP and opposition leader in Parliament was arrested and detained under the ISA on two occasions (1971-1873 & 1987-1989); so were his son Lim Guan Eng and his other prominent colleagues in the party.  Kassim Ahmad, former Secretary General of Partai Sosialis Rakyat Malaysia (PSRM) and Syed Husin Ali, the present Chairman of PSRM were detained in 1974 and released conditionally in 1980: See Majlis Persatuan-Persatuan Pelajar Malaysia United Kingdom.  “An Interview with Dr. Syed Husin Ali”, Winter 1981 p.8.  Anwar Ibrahim the present Deputy Prime Minister/minister of Finance was also detained in 1976 when he was leading ABIM, the Malaysian Islamic Youth Movement.  Cikgu Musa, Mahfuz Omar, Suhaimi Ahmad and 21 other represent detainees from Pan Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS).  For an account of how the ISA has been alleged to have been used for political ends, see generally Democratic Action Party,  The Real Reason, Kuala Lumpur, 1988.
  20. See Suhaini Aznam, “Tales of Torture”,  Far Eastern Economic Review, 12 January 1989, p.15.  See also Report of Amnesty International 1988, p.144.  In Teoh Yook Huwah v. Menteri Hal Ehwal Dalam Negeri & Anor (1993) 1 AMR 279 an appellant failed in his habeas corpus application on the ground that he had been assaulted by the police while in detention.
  21. See, for example, Report of Amnesty International 1988
  22. Suhaini Aznam, op.cit.
  23. Ibid.
  24. Ibid
  25. Dr Syed Husin Ali, President of Party Rakyat Malaysia (PRM) was an ISA detainee for six years (1974-1980).  He was reinterrogated after being sent to Kamunting detention camp in a police lock up in Kuala Lumpur.  This second interrogation process was even more humiliating than the initial one.  His room, 10ft by 10ft was without a mattress or planks.  He had to sleep on the cement floor of the lock up.  The light in his cell was switched on continuously.  He did not know whether it was day or night.   He said, “There were no windows just little vents…5 police officers took turns to interrogate me for 50 hours.”  He claimed to have been slapped, kicked, pushed and his face spitted upon.  Obscene words (dicarut) were used.  At one point he was confined to a dark room for 4 days.  He was taken out for further questioning from 9.00am to 10.00pm for two weeks.  This account was given by Dr. Syed Husin to the writer in an interview in Kuala Lumpur on 4 August 1992.  See also Ismail Sabri Yaacob.  “Layanan Terhadap Tahanan Politik di Malaysia” (“Servicing the Political Detainees in Malaysia”), LL.B academic exercise, University of Malaya, 1982.
  26. Jocelin Tan, “An Old Warrior”, Malaysian Business, 1 June 1994 p.31.  It has been somewhat of a surprise to see this interview in print in what is essentially a pro-government business monthly.  At the time of Syed Husin’s detention Tan Sri Ghazali Shafie was the Home Minister while Dr. Mahathir Mohamed and Datuk Musa Hitam were the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister respectively.  Dr. Syed Husin has since published his detention experiences in Two Faces, Kuala Lumpur 1996.
  27. Re R. Gunaratnam:  He was detained for 11 years 8 months beginning 14 November 1970 at the age of 24 and released in 1982 on the allegation that he was involved in communist activities.  He was, prior to detention, an ordinary member of Party Rakyat Malaysia, (The People’s Party), an influential political party in the 1960s.  In Re S.N. Rajah, executive secretary to the United Malaysian Estate Workers
  28. Ismail Sabri Yaacob op.cit. at p.24.  See also Kassim Ahmad, Universiti Kedua, Kuala Lumpur, 1984, p.5
  29. See generally Dr. Tan S. Ghiaw, The First 60 Days, Kuala Lumpur, 1990
  30. Abdul Aziz Ishak, Special Guest:  The Detention in Malaysia of an Ex-Cabinet Minister, Oxford University Press, Singapore, 1977, pp 600 & 70.  Abdul Aziz, Agriculture Minister during the premiership of Tunku Abdul Rahman, is the only ex-cabinet Minister in Malaysia to have been detained under the ISA while holding office.  Abdul Aziz was detained in 1965 on alleged involvements in the Indonesian “Confrontation” against Malaysia in 1964.  This allegation, denied by him in Special Guest was never proved.  Released in 1967, he was restricted in his movements until 1971.
  31. There had been two deputy ministers, Abdullah Ahmad and Abdullah Majid, detained under the ISA in 1978 on alleged communist involvements.
  32. (1988) 1 MLJ 45 at p.47.  The quote was taken from Lord Wright in Barnard v. Gorman  (1941) AC 375 at p.393
  33. (1975) 2 MLJ 279
  34. ibid at p.280
  35. Article 5(3) provides:  Where a person is arrested he shall be informed as soon as may be of the grounds of his arrest and shall be allowed to consult and be defended by a legal practitioner of his choice.
  36. (1971) 2 MLJ 137
  37. (1971) 2 MLJ at p.139 per Wee Chong Jin CJ
  38. (1975) 2 NLJ 198.  For position of right to counsel in ordinary criminal cases see Hashim bin Saud v. Yahya bin Hashim (1977) 2 MLJ 116.
  39. (1969) 2 MLJ 129 (per Suffian FJ).  In Singapore the rationale of Liverside was first introduced in Re Ong Yew Teck  (1960) 26 MLJ 67.
  40. (1942) ACT. 206
  41. (1988) 1 MLJ 182, 188
  42. (1989) 1 MLJ 418
  43. Survey of Malaysian Law 1989, MLJ, Kuala Ljmpur 1991, p.119
  44. (1988) 1 MLJ 468.  The recent arrest of 10 persons alleged to have been active Shiites may be a good refresher and sequel to Jamaluddin’s case cited above
  45. The Real Reason:  Operation Lalang ISA Arrests, op.cit. at p.473
  46. (1988) 2 MLJ 468
  47. (1988) 3 MLJ 29
  48. In two other Malaysian decisions – Merdeka University Bhd v. Government of Malaysia (1981) 2 MLJ 356 and Yit Hon Kit v Minister of Home Affairs Malaysia & Anor (1988) 1 MLJ 638 the presiding judges expressly stated their preference for the objective approach.
  49. A739/1989
  50. Survey of Malaysian Law, 1989, MLJ, Kuala Lumpur, 1991, p.119.

Back to Part 1
Continue to Part 3
Back To INSAF Page
Back to Main Index