There was a time, not too long ago, when sitting down and having a chat with writer, filmmaker and social commentator Hishamuddin Rais was practically impossible. Hisham was detained for two years under Malaysia's Internal Security Act. Released on June 1, Hisham took part in a two-hour chat session on Malaysiakini.com on July 25 where he talked about the reasons for his release; the fate of jailed former Malaysian deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim; secularism in Malaysian politics and the need for a democratic space. In between, he even mused about the Kajang satay he used to enjoy. He said: " In Kamunting (where he was held), I thought a lot about satay but once I am free, I thought of other things."

Finally released after being detained for two years under Malaysia's Internal Security Act, writer, filmmaker and social commentator Hishamuddin Rais doesn't see this as a softening of either Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad or his deputy, Abdullah Badawi.

In a chat session on Malaysiakini.com on July 25, he said: "We were released because of the work done by the anti-ISA movement, by the democracy-loving people both at home and abroad. Do not forget the work done by NGOs all around the world; and protest notes, demos in London, Hong Kong, Jakarta, Melbourne, Berlin, Paris, etc. All these helped us. Nothing to do with Mahathir or Badawi."

But will international pressure work for the jailed Anwar Ibrahim? Hisham feels that Anwar won't be released anytime soon. " The max the new government of Pak Lah will do - send Anwar abroad for medical treatment. I do not think Anwar will be a free person at (his home) Bukit Damansara." He continued: " The case of Anwar is slightly different. He went through the court, however flawed, but we are detained without trial."

He also feels that not enough is being done for those 99 terrorist suspects held under the ISA. He said: "All political parties are scared to associate with those ISA detainees because of the word TERRORISM… some political parties are scared to take the principle issue - detention without trial. Terrorist or not, let the courts decide."

Meanwhile, the merger of Keadilan and the PRM (Parti Rakyat Malaysia) - Parti Keadilan Raykat - offers more hope that race will not be a limiting factor in Malaysian politics. Hisham said: "I think the time has come for changes to be made and I think Parti Keadilan Raykat is bringing up the multicultural dimension." On the other hand, someone commented that many non-Muslims are doubtful over the alliance with PAS as many are still doubtful about PAS' policies. Then, there are those who feel that non-Muslims and liberal Muslims will never trust or accept PAS' leadership of the government. To this, Hisham replied: "Whether PAS rules Malaysia or not is not up to PAS but up to all of us." As to the opposition kicking out the Barisan Nasional government? Hisham said: "I'd be happy with a really strong majority in the opposition, even if they don't take over the government in the next election."

Like another Malaysian social commentator, Farish Noor, Hisham also talked about a secular Malaysia. "A secular Malaysia is the only way but what's most important is to debate the meaning of the word secular," he said. "To me secularism means using the human minds to develop the betterment of the human race. The secular - is only a concept - we could discuss it in open debates but currently loads of people are or were intimidated by the word secular. I am trying to open up the debate."

And to do that, he said, "we need to open up the democratic space, which is very vital for any nation to march forward." He added: "In Malaysia, we are not fighting for basic necessities. We are fighting for democratic space… In the '60s, the anti -war movement had a slogan - masturbate and drown the state! Now I am calling for people to get organised - to debate: secularism, Islamic states, etc. Open up and be counted - express your ideas openly. Just saying 'I am against the Islamic state' means nothing. Do something."

As with his work with the young, it is the young whom Hisham sees promise. "The young people are always the hope of any nation. Do not be afraid of the ISA," he advised. "The ISA is there to frighten you. If you are afraid, then the ISA has won. Go for it. You'll never make mistakes if you are not doing anything. Do it now. There is no such thing as mistakes, only NOT the correct way."


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