Malaysia’s parliament today approved a controversial new security bill to replace the recently repealed Internal Security Act. The new measures curtail the ISA’s notorious provisions that gave police powers of indefinite detention of suspects without trial.
“Rights activists nevertheless say the bill remains vulnerable to abuse,” AP reports. “Opposition leaders insist it’s a government ploy to introduce superficial changes ahead of national elections expected within months.”
Malaysia’s prime minister defended the new act as an essential defence against post-communist threats to democracy, but the measures have come under attack from rights groups and opposition figures that portray the measure as a pre-election ploy and a threat to civil liberties.
Tabling the bill for a second reading, Prime Minister Najib Razak said the legislation is needed to defend Malaysian democracy from new threats.
“The country not only needs a shield, which is the people’s political maturity, but also a weapon in the form of the Security Offences (Special Measures) Bill,” he said. “While the two ideologies [of communism and terrorism] are different, they have the same goals, which is to change the administration through violence and unconstitutional means.”
The premier has been cultivating a reformist image following the repeal of the repressive Internal Security Act and additional political reforms, but civil society groups believe the new bill is a retrograde step.
The new measure would give the police “broad powers to conduct searches and intercept communications without judicial warrant, making the force susceptible to abuse of power,” said Suaram (Voice of the Malaysian People), a nongovernmental rights monitor.
“The history of human rights violations by the police…clearly shows why the police should not be given such broad powers,” it said, highlighting the historic “lack of justice and accountability” for violations by the security forces.
The opposition has a genuine chance of winning the forthcoming elections – if they are genuinely free and fair. In that respect, the government’s harassment of Bersih, the leading election monitor, is an ominous sign, some observers suggest.
“It looks like the same old, same old from Umno-linked NGO Perkasa,” The Malaysia Chronicle reports, “which on Tuesday applied for a permit from the police to organise the ‘Raja Berdaulat, Kasih Dijunjung’ assembly on April 29, a day after the joint Bersih 3.0 rally for free and fair elections.”
The poll is yet to be scheduled, but official media attacks on the opposition suggest that it could be “imminent,” says former deputy premier Anwar Ibrahim.
Unimpressed by the government’s recent reforms, the opposition leader believes Malaysia is failing to provide a model of democratic development for the Muslim world.
“We are no longer a democracy at a time when there are great changes sweeping the world,” he said recently, following his acquittal on politically-motivated assault charges.
He hopes the poll can be a watershed by moving the country beyond the “race-based politics” that the ruling UMNO party has used to pit majority Malays against Indians, Chinese and other minorities, and in developing a genuinely liberal, pluralist democracy.
“Once you are transformed into a relatively vibrant democracy, then you actually allow for space,” he said this week. “And that latitude is essential for the mushrooming of ideas. That, to me, is very critical when you talk in terms of economics or cultural empowerment.”
Suaram is a grantee of the National Endowment for Democracy, the Washington-based democracy assistance group.