IN 1987, 106 people were held without trial for what the then Mahathir administration said was to prevent racial clashes.
Thirty years later, more than 30 of these detainees will come face to face with Dr Mahathir Mohamad to discuss their arrest under Ops Lalang in a country still fraught with race and religious fissures.
Dr Mahathir, who was alleged to have masterminded the crackdown on October 27, 1987 is expected to face his critics in a forum in George Town, Penang, on October 28.
The forum, organised by the Penang Institute, will feature former detainees, their families and Dr Mahathir.
“This will bring some closure to what was the biggest crackdown on politicians, activists and academics in the country,” said a member of the organising committee who did not want to be named.
The largest Internal Security Act swoop occurred in 1969 after the May 13 racial riots.
The forum will also discuss whether repressive laws, such as the ISA, now replaced by the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012, are still relevant in Malaysia.
Besides Dr Mahathir, the forum will also host Bersih 2.0 chairman Maria Chin Abdullah, DAP adviser Lim Kit Siang and Parit Buntar MP Dr Mujahid Yusof Rawa.
Maria’s late husband, Yunus Ali, and Lim were among the 106 detained under the ISA in Kamunting during the Ops Lalang crackdown.
Yunus had just returned from United Kingdom after a stint with the Palestine Liberation Organisation. He was also the secretary-general of Parti Sosialis Rakyat Malaysia (renamed Parti Rakyat Malaysia in 1990) while Lim was the Tanjong MP and secretary-general of DAP.
Mujahid’s late father, Yusof Rawa, who was PAS president from 1982-1989, was among those who lobbied for the release of the ISA detainees.
According to academics, Operasi Lalang came on the back of rising ethnic tension in Malaysia after the Education Ministry appointed 100 senior assistants and supervisors at Chinese-medium primary schools.
This prompted protests on October 11, 1987 by the United Chinese School Committees Association Malaysia (UCSCAM) or Dong Jiao Zong, with MCA and Gerakan calling for a three-day boycott in Chinese schools.
Although the boycott was subsequently called off, Umno Youth then led by Najib Razak, who was also minister of culture, youth and sports, held a counter protest in Kampung Baru on October 17 calling for the resignation of MCA deputy president Lee Kim Sai.
The height of the tension-filled days came from an unrelated event on October 18 when 23-year-old private Adam Jaafar stole an M16 from his army camp in Ipoh and went on a rampage in Chow Kit, killing one person and injuring two others.
Dr Mahathir, who was then prime minister and home minister, was alleged to have approved the crackdown following his own party troubles in Umno after narrowly defending his presidency.
A day after the arrests, the Home Ministry withdrew the licences of four newspapers – The Star and Sunday Star, Sin Chew Jit Poh and Watan.
Although the newspapers regained their licences on Mar 22, 1988, media activists say that press freedom has never been the same again.
In a 2011 book Doctor M: Operation Malaysia – Conversations with Mahathir Mohamad by American Tom Plate, the former prime minister said: “It was the police who took action against them and I accepted their decision.”