MCA's Yap Pian Hon has no regrets over Chinese school stand

Bede Hong

Yap Pian Hon, 73, speaking at home in Serdang. The former MCA leader opposed the government’s move to appoint non-Mandarin speakers to senior positions in Chinese primary schools and was hauled up under the Internal Security Act in 1987. – The Malaysian Insight pic by Nazir Sufari, October 26, 2017.

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.

FORMER MCA vice-president and party veteran Yap Pian Hon, 73, wears his detention under Operasi Lalang as a badge of honour.

He is convinced that had he, other politicians and social activists not stood up to the meddling by the government in Chinese education, Chinese language primary schools would not exist today.

Yap, a former MCA Youth chairman and Selangor exco member, was detained without trial for 50 days for opposing the government’s move to appoint non-Mandarin speakers to senior positions in Chinese primary schools.

Yap was one of 106 lawmakers, activists and journalists picked up by police on October 27, 1987, as part of the police crackdown codenamed “Operasi Lalang”.

“I was kept in a small room that was dusky with no windows. There was just the cement bed,” said the former three-term MCA vice-president from 1990 to 1999.

“I scratched the wall daily to keep track of the days I was detained. I tried to exercise and jog in the small room to stay focused and have a clear head,” he told The Malaysian Insight.

Yap said he used his position as MCA Youth chief to oppose the government’s move to assign non-Mandarin speakers to senior positions in Chinese vernacular schools.

“If we had allowed that to happen, the Chinese primary vernacular school today would not exist. It was my constitutional right to voice out our grievances. I will never regret what I did.

“How could you send a person who doesn’t know Mandarin to hold a high position in a Chinese school? What did they mean when they did that? They wanted to change the mainstream Chinese education, isn’t it?”

He remembered that a few days into his detention, Special Branch officers cross-examined him and the sessions went from 9am to 6pm daily.

“They accused me of having a relationship with the Communist Party and asked who was behind my actions. I just repeatedly stressed that I was making my own stand.”

Yap left DAP in 1974, after which he served as Serdang assemblyman for three terms, from 1982 to 1990, as an MCA politician.

When Serdang became a parliamentary seat, Yap served the constituency another three terms until 2008, when he relinquished the seat.

He re-contested the seat in 2013, but lost to DAP’s Ong Kian Ming.   

Below are excerpts from the interview:  

TMI: What happened during your detention? 

Yap: I was detained for 50 days. I still remember that after the rally on October 27, I went to the MCA headquarters to meet with my comrades and have some discussions. Around 11pm, I reached home and saw there were many strangers at the kopitiam near my house.

I told my wife that I might be arrested. At 1am, someone knocked on the door and it was a Kajang Special Branch officer.

He told me that I have been arrested under (the Internal Security Act) ISA 73 (1) and they sent me to the Sentul police station before covering my eyes and taking me to another unknown detention place. 

TMI: Looking back, how do you feel about your experience?

Yap: Very tough. Isolated confinement. Confined within a small room. You see, when you are in a small room, when you can’t go out and there’s no freedom at all, how do you think you would feel? Very, very isolated. Psychologically, we were affected.

We didn’t know what to expect. There was no reading, no activity. Nothing. It’s all in the dark. We had to strengthen our minds to face that challenge.

TMI: What do you think of Dr Mahathir Mohamad today? 

Yap: When I was released, I went through all the newspaper cuttings on what the then inspector-general of police Haniff Omar said.

Police said the situation was very tense. They said the only way to control the situation was to use the ISA 73(1), to take action.

But before the arrests took place, the IGP said he had met the PM over the issue. That means Dr Mahathir agreed. When the IGP proposed the matter to him, he (Dr Mahathir) could always say “no”. But he agreed to it, so the operation went ahead. 

Dr Mahathir is expected to attend one of those forums (30th anniversary of Ops Lalang). I would like to see how he behaves.

In April 2007, during the Ijok by-election, Anwar (Ibrahim) openly admitted that the policy implemented on Chinese schools was wrong. He admitted but he did not apologise. So, I think all these detainees should ask Anwar or Dr Mahathir to apologise.

TMI: So, you want Dr Mahathir to apologise?

Yap: Yes, yes, yes. He agreed to it. If not, how could the police take action? They cannot take action without the consent of the government. By BN.

The IGP briefed him. I don’t hate Dr Mahathir. But there was wrongdoing. Dr Mahathir and Anwar must apologise to all those who were detained under the ISA.  

TMI: Do you think our society learned anything from Ops Lalang?

Yap: No, I don’t think so. We never did learn from Ops Lalang and that’s why today we can see there are some politicians repeatedly trying to play up race and religion issues just to achieve their personal ambitions. This is harming our society.‎ – October 26, 2017.

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