ISA FOCUS Chemical engineering professor Tan Ka Kheng was detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA) for fighting against the Bukit Merah rare earths plant in 1987, but that did not stop him from being involved in another similar campaign 25 years later.
Now an academician at a local private college as well as a researcher with the Save Malaysia Stop Lynas (SMSL),
Tan has been actively speaking out against the Lynas Advanced Materials Plant (Lamp) in Gebeng, Pahang. He has made frequent appearances at public forums on Lynas and was among the experts who reviewed the Lynas documents - the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) and Radiological Impact Assessment (RIA) reports - when they were displayed for public viewing. But more than three decades ago, the same efforts against the Asian Rare Earth (ARE) plant saw him become the first people to be nabbed under Operasi Lalang in 1987. "I asked the Special Branch (SB) during my interrogation, ‘why did you arrest me?'" recounted Tan in an interview with Malaysiakini. The reply came, "Because you are a mastermind. You are in this Bakun (Dam) committee, PSG (Papan Support Group) chairperson, (founded the theatre group) Pentas... Your hands are everywhere." Tan was then vice-chairperson of the Environmental Protection Society of Malaysia (EPSM), held a master's degree in environmental engineering from University of California in Berkeley, United States, and was a lecturer at Universiti Pertanian Malaysia (UPM, now known as Universiti Putra Malaysia). "We came to know about this problem in Papan, Perak - the dumpsite," he explained, referring to the area earmarked for storage of the radioactive waste from the Asian Rare Earth (ARE) factory in Bukit Merah, Perak. "We realised their (villagers') problem... first of all, they were local grassroots people. Only a few of them could speak English; they did not know how to deal with the media. "Then, of course, the government was very oppressive, it was during the (then prime minister Dr) Mahathir (Mohamad's) ‘white terror' period.
"So we sourced materials, such as information about radiation and the plant. It so happened that both of these issues fall under my discipline," Tan said.
An eco-warrior in the making
In May 1984, the Papan Support Group (PSG) was formed to oppose the ARE with Tan as its chief.
The PSG was a coalition of some 20 NGOs, among them Angkatan Belia Islam Malaysia (Abim), Federation of Malaysian Consumers Associations (Fomca) and the Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC).
"At the time I was elected chairperson of PSG, I knew that they (the police) would come. I would have to go in (to prison). In our activities, we have no reservations. We fight for justice, we fight for environmental protection," Tan recalled.
The following years saw many protests being held against the Papan dumpsite and the ARE plant, and several of them had thousands of protesters taking part, including one 1,500-strong hunger strike against the dumpsite in December 1984, and a protest of 10,000 people against the ARE in April 1987. Some of these resulted in clashes with the police.
In addition, PSG brought in foreign experts to review the dumpsite, such as American epidemiologist Rosalie Bertell and Japanese geneticist Sadao Ichikawa, both of whom deemed the area hazardous.
"Simultaneously (around 1985), Mahathir was dreaming his grandiose idea of building this dam in Bakun, Sarawak. I also chaired a committee of various NGOs... to support the tribal people of Sarawak in opposing the project," Tan said.
In the months leading up to Operasi Lalang, Tan began to notice that his telephone connection began deteriorating, raising suspicions that his phone was being tapped.
"One day, a man with Telekom Malaysia uniform came and said he wanted to repair my phone. I looked at him and said, ‘you don't look like you are a technician'.
"He ran away!" Tan laughed. He later recognised the ‘technician' as one of his Special Branch interrogators.
"I can't remember how it (the ISA arrests) came about, but generally we can see it coming. So we even held this ‘last supper'.
He said during the supper about two months prior to the arrests under Operasi Lalang, those attending - at least 12 of them - made their parting requests, such as asking their friends to bring reading materials to prison. However, Ka Kheng does not remember what he said.
"It was too long ago. I only remember this grand last supper. Good wine, good food, a lot of singing...," he said.
First to be arrested during Operasi Lalang
About 1am on Oct 27, 1987, as Tan was sleeping at his house before taking a flight to Singapore to discuss a business plan with his former employer, police came knocking on his door.
The next day, newspapers announced his arrest and that of 18 others - it was the beginning of Operasi Lalang.
Tan was first taken the Petaling Jaya district police headquarters for a few hours, then to an unknown detention centre where he was kept in solitary confinement for 60 days. To this day, he can only guess at the location of the detention centre.
"They had four-hour shifts for the interrogators. Every four hours they would change interrogators. They're fresh and you're bloody tired. They'd come up with so-called new evidence, new allegations or new questions," Tan said of his interrogation.
It was during his interrogation that he found out that he was the first to be arrested during Operasi Lalang, out of a total of 106 individuals detained. Tan was also accused of being the second-in-command of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM), and of attempting to revive its auxiliary wing, the ‘United Front', in an effort to overthrow the government. "I said, ‘I am not so strong, sorry. I am not that powerful. I am only a weakling, just a scholar. It's just that I am very clear-minded. Right is right; wrong is wrong,'" the environmental activist recalled his response to his interrogators. "They accused me of starting Pentas, like an old-style communist cultural group, which was also not true. "They said Pentas worked with this Filipino theatre group that was a subversive group, and that Filipino President Corazon Aquino wrote a letter to Mahathir to support my case," Tan explained. He was eventually slapped with a two-year detention order and sent to the infamous Kamunting Detention Camp near Taiping in Perak. During his interrogation, he said, the interrogators sometimes slammed their palms on the table and on one occasion threatened to crush his testicles if he did not cooperate. 'We're just moving the fence' However, Tan was eventually released on the evening of Aug 25, 1988, serving only eight months of his detention order. "When I left, the Special Branch officer told me, ‘Tan, when you go out, don't think that you are free. We're just moving the fence,'" he said. He said he continued to be followed by people he believes were with the police, but the surveillance stopped after a while. That is, until Himpunan Hijau 2.0 on Feb 26 this year, when he found a foreign object in his mobile phone's USB port. While his 303 days of incarceration under Operasi Lalang has not dampened his spirit as an eco-warrior, the prospect of history repeating looms over him like a dark cloud. Tan (far right) believes that an Operasi Lalang 2.0 is possible. "Najib (Prime Minister and Umno president Najib Abdul Razak) is not in a commanding position (within Umno). He has to do something drastic. "If he follows the example of Mahathir, that is to go for massive arrests again, it could stop some Umno leaders from opposing him. "It's not far-fetched. The situation of Umno politics now has gone back to 1987. The only difference now is that we have four states under Pakatan Rakyat." However, Tan is unmoved by the possibility of a second detention. "If they detain me, other people will continue (the fight). We will win because truth is on our side," he said.
This interview is part of Malaysiakini's focus series on the Internal Security Act leading up to its repeal, which is expected to be tabled during the current sitting of Parliament. The government has since tabled a new Bill, the Security Offences (Special Measures) Bill 2012, which is now going through its second reading in the Dewan Rakyat.