DR Mahathir Mohamad looked agitated when he was asked at a youth forum last night if he would use repressive laws like the Internal Security Act if he came into power again.
The question was on the massive police crackdown, codenamed Ops Lalang, which took place 30 years ago when Dr Mahathir was prime minister.
He shot back: “No one was upset when Tunku Abdul Rahman, Tun Hussein Onn, Tun Razak used that law. The amount of people detained during their time was far more. Why were they not attacked?” he asked.
Dr Mahathir told the audience that Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tun Abdul Razak Hussein each had detained 2,000 people under the ISA, Tun Hussein Onn had locked up 4,000 people, while only 1,200 were detained under his administration.
He was speaking to about 250 youths at a youth engagement event in Petaling Jaya last night. Also present was Lim Kit Siang.
The question on Ops Lalang was: “Why did Tun allow Operasi Lalang to take place in 1987? If you were to go back to that time, would you do it differently, after seeing the reactions from the families of those who were detained?”
106 activists and politicians were detained under the ISA during Ops Lalang for allegedly being a threat to the nation.
In a recent interview with The Malaysian Insight to mark the 30th anniversary of the crackdown, the former prime minister had said that he was not responsible for the operation.
Dr Mahathir said he had told the police not to detain political leaders and activists, but senior police officers insisted that it had to be done.
Last night, Dr Mahathir, who is now the chairman of the Pakatan Harapan coalition, said he would follow the advice of the police if a similar situation arose now.
“Yes, I would follow the advice of the police. Like I did 30 years ago,” he said.
“Security is the responsibility of the police. We cannot tell them what to do because it would seem like we are trying to tell them how to do their jobs.
He reiterated that police had told him a racial riot was imminent if the arrests were not made.
“Police told me this. Even an Umno leader that time, Ibrahim Ali, was also arrested.
“If you want to blame me for this, go ahead, it has happened,” he said.
He added that it would have been irresponsible of him if he did not act on the advice of the police.
Dr Mahathir took about 15 questions from youth who had queued in front of the microphone as soon as he arrived.
But the most significant questions were the ones on Ops Lalang and the arrest of his one-time deputy, Anwar Ibrahim.
One member of the audience asked if Dr Mahathir would stand by what he did to Anwar in 1998. Anwar was sacked as deputy prime minister then.
Dr Mahathir said he had ignored complaints about Anwar for three years before sacking him.
He said action was only taken after Umno decided that Anwar was no longer fit to be in the party or carry out his duties as deputy prime minister.
“Beyond that, I had no involvement in the police action, but of course you won’t believe that,” he told the crowd.
He also said current security laws – Security Offences (Special Measures) Act, Prevention of Terrorism Act and Prevention of Crime Act – introduced by Prime Minister Najib Razak were worse than ISA.
“But nobody complains,” he said.