October 27 marks the 30th anniversary of Operasi Lalang, where 106 people were detained without trial and the publishing licences of three newspapers were revoked. The episode remains a grim reminder of what can happen in the absence of check and balances, a deep scar in the Malaysian psyche. To mark this day, The Malaysian Insight speaks to those involved in the dragnet – the victims and their families, detention centre wardens and police.
WHAT does not break you, only makes you stronger.
He was not a prominent politician. He was not a champion of vernacular education. He did not make a living driving the wedge between Malaysians with fire-and-brimstone speeches yet this La Salle Brother was among the 106 individuals detained under Operasi Lalang.
What were Brother Anthony Rogers’ offences? Developing social programmes, providing aid to the poor and raising awareness on social and economic injustices.
The passage of time does not make his detention for being a threat to national security any less ridiculous but Rogers is not a bitter nor defeated man.
He said that his detention gave him the opportunity to strike friendships with people of different faith. He also found solace in the Bible, which he read from cover to cover many times. Recalling his arrest, he said: “I was told that the government wanted to know more about the growing involvement of the Catholic Church in human development and social justice work.
“The only thing we were told was that we were being investigated for being a threat to national security.”
Rogers was held for 60 days in solitary confinement at the police remand centre at Jalan Ipoh, Kuala Lumpur, and then sent to the Kamunting detention camp on December 28, 1987 under a two-year detention order.
He was released after eight months.
Rogers’ passion for speaking out against poverty and corruption was born out of a belief that “concern for the poor and moral order is a permanent mission of the church”.
“I was seen as a threat to national security because it (the church) brought together people of all faiths who have a passion for God to have compassion for their brothers and sisters,” said the 68-year-old, who is currently the brother director at Penang’s St Xavier’s Institution.
“We were working towards helping Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists. Not to convert them. It was to ensure they received just wages, proper education, good living conditions and a corruption-free government.”
Below are excerpts from the interview:
TMI: How did the ISA arrest affect your life?
Rogers: Most of us must have heard about the dreadful stories about the 60 days, solitary confinement; spartan food, irregular sleep and endless interrogation.
The plywood on a cement block, without pillow or blanket was not the most difficult aspect of life. It was “fear of isolation” and “falling into the trap of public shame”.
Before being incarcerated, I was brought to Petaling Jaya to collect some personal items. Besides grabbing a few items of clothing and toiletries, I had the foresight to take from my bedside the copy of my personal Bible.
I was surprised that when I asked my officers if I could take this into my cell and prayer room for the next 60 days and they said “yes”.
Later, I was told that mine was an unusual request and their gracious consent a gift few may have received. Many would not believe that I was able to read from cover to cover many times and spent hours reflecting on the words.
The privilege of having the Bible was my source of inspiration and strength.
TMI: Are you angry with the government for what they put you through?
Rogers: I’m not angry with the government, but sad. They could have come to our office and find out what we are doing instead of using the ISA (Internal Security Act).
If they wanted to investigate us, there are proper ways to do it. They shouldn’t have used the ISA because it drives more fear into people.
Unless they could find some fault with what we were doing, then that’s a different story.
We were not stirring people up with anger. We were just asking them to care for the country, especially with the growing tensions, by doing campaigns to reconcile one another as Malaysians. Telling them how our differences can be resolved.
TMI: Who were some of the detainees with you at Kamunting?
Rogers: The 49 of us who were sent to Kamunting were placed in two kawasan (areas) which were 8 and 9.
Some of those in Kawasan 8 included DAP’s V. David, Karpal Singh, Lau Dak Kee and Lim Guan Eng, PAS Youth (chief) Mat Sabu, Mahfuz Omar, Haji Sulaiman and Khalid Samad. The academics and educators were Kua Kia Soong, Sim Mou You and others.
Our stay in Kamunting was not a holiday but we made full use of our time together to share our stories about out work and life and saw that the diversity of our gifts and talents based on our own faiths is the strength of Malaysia.
We became friends and continue to believe that Kamunting did not break us but allowed us rediscover new insights for a better Malaysia.
TMI: What was the support from your family members and friends like?
Rogers: The support from the family, church and international organisations was unbelievable. The church in Asia and Europe showed their contribution to persons who stood up for justice by sending us more than 10,000 cards and letters.
TMI: When you look back to the time before your arrested, what would you have done differently?
Rogers: If you do something good and get arrested, then how can you prevent it from happening? It was obvious in my writings and talks, they couldn’t identify anything that I did wrong.
It was just about how people neglect the poor. How can you not talk about justice and freedom?
TMI: What was your most painful experience being in Kamunting?
Rogers: The greatest pain is to see what all the families went through when they came to visit. It was especially sad to see the children coming to visit their parents in Kamunting.
They couldn’t understand why they had to come and see their fathers behind barbed-wire fences.
As for me, there was no bad experience. I became friends with people from different faiths and that was a great achievement.
TMI: Did your experience deter you from carrying out your social work after you were released?
Rogers: No, our lives are to serve the poor. Just because somebody tells us not to do good, we cannot just keep quiet. Doing good for the people is the essence of our religious faith.