Najib punts on legal change
By Anil Netto and Simon Roughneen
PENANG and BANGKOK - Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has thrown down the
gauntlet to the country's political opposition with a bold-sounding reform
package aimed at winning back lost popular support ahead of general elections
due by 2013. Analysts believe the reform vows signal a move towards early
polls, with some speculating they could be called as early as the fourth
quarter of this year.
The amendments, announced last night in a speech on the eve of Malaysia Day and
Merdeka (independence) Day celebrations, will entail the replacement of tough
security laws, such as the Internal Security Act (ISA) and Emergency Ordinance,
which have historically been used and abused by authorities to squash public
dissent through provisions that allow for detention without trial.
Najib also promised to update a media code that requires publications to apply
for permits every year, a regulation that has created a culture of self-censorship
among Malaysian journalists, and bring laws governing public assemblies in line
with international norms. According to a press statement from Najib's office,
the proposed changes ''represent the biggest shake-up of the Malaysian system
since independence from Britain in 1957.''
While the announcement had been widely welcomed, there are questions about the
premier's motivations. After a July 9, 2011 electoral reform rally in which
around 20,000 (some reports say 50,000) Malaysians demonstrated in a rare show
of political dissent in the national capital, Najib appeared to be on the
political back foot with elections on the horizon.
His predicament had been complicated by signs of a slowing economy, rising
inflation and a Malaysian human rights group push to get prosecutors in France
to include in their ongoing probe of weapons deals a commission paid on the
sale of French Scorpene submarines to Malaysia.
The last general elections, held in 2008, saw the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN)
coalition lose its two-thirds parliamentary majority for the first time since
independence, marking the first real possibility that voters could elect an
alternative government. The opposition People's Alliance won electoral control
of five of the country's 13 federal states.
The opposition lost some steam - and control of one state - in the election's
aftermath, but in alliance with civil society campaigners dissatisfied with the
political status quo seems to have regained the initiative in recent months.
This, analysts suggest, has perhaps forced Najib's hand. Bridget Welsh, a
Southeast Asia specialist at Singapore Management University said ''civil
society and opposition set the agenda'' and that ''for political survival Najib
has embraced political reform.''
Reacting to Najib's speech, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim said on Twitter
that he welcomes the proposed abolition of the ISA, which allows for detention
without trial and has frequently been employed against government opponents.
Najib said new counterterrorism laws will be adopted to replace the ISA, under
which 37 people are still held. Critics say the BN coalition government, which
has ruled Malaysia uninterrupted since independence, has used the ISA to curb
dissent and hamstring opposition parties. Anwar cautioned that ''we have to be
wary whether freedom is now guaranteed and what will be the replacement Acts''.
The ISA was first introduced by the Malaysian government in 1960, a day after a
decade-long 'Emergency' was lifted. The Emergency, proclaimed by the British in
post-war Malaya, was launched ostensibly to deal with a communist insurgency,
but had also taken aim at the challenge posed by left-wing groups that also
included Malay nationalists pressuring for independence from colonial rule.
In the 1960s, the ISA was used against not only the outlawed communists but
also leaders of the Labour Party, which was crippled by the detentions,
political opponents and unionists. Mass arrests under the ISA took place in
1987 when more than a hundred dissidents were detained at a time when the then
premier Mahathir Mohamad was facing an internal challenge within his political
Opposition to the ISA has mounted exponentially since the 1990s. In 2009, some
50,000 people poured into the streets to demand the repeal of the ISA. Arrests
of political dissidents since then have been met with petitions, candle-light
vigils and prayer services. Online polls showed overwhelming numbers are
against the laws. Some note that when six activists attached to the Socialist
Party were detained without trial in July, the government invoked the Emergency
Ordinance rather than the unpopular ISA.
Moreover, a 2007 cable from the US Embassy in Kuala Lumpur leaked by
anti-secrecy group Wikileaks expressed serious reservations about the use of
the ISA. "Malaysia's intelligence approach does not focus on developing legally
admissible evidence against suspects, and thus limits potential cooperation
with US law enforcement agencies," the cable said in reference to use of the
Information from terrorists detained under the ISA "does not translate into
evidentiary material that would be admissible in US or Malaysian courts. This
undercuts the usefulness of our Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty with Malaysia."
Moreover, the lack of trials for over 100 suspected terrorists and the
secretive nature of their ISA detention "have limited the public's awareness
and understanding of the terrorist threat," the cable said. It noted that "some
Malaysian political oppositionists and rights activists assert incorrectly that
alleged U.S. pressure is responsible for Malaysia's use of the ISA against
suspected terrorists." The cable suggested bolstering the skills of Malaysian
intelligence agents to improve law enforcement capacities. It's unclear if the
US lobbied Najib to repeal the ISA in favor of new counterterrorism
It is thus a common reaction among activists that Najib's "reforms" will likely
be more cosmetic than substantive and that the repressive substance of the old
laws would now be buried in new laws bearing more politically correct names.
They have noted that there was little in Najib or his ruling United Malays
Nasional Organization's (UMNO) record to indicate any appreciation of human
Indeed the police reaction to the July 9 Bersih rally - on which Asia Times
Online reported - was heavy-handed and uncompromising after Najib's government
did its utmost to prevent the protest from taking place. Before the rally,
Najib and other officials had declared the planned demonstration was
''illegal'' and rounded up over 250 Bersih supporters before the rally, some
just for wearing the color yellow.
Among the proposed amendments announced by Najib is a review of laws on freedom
of assembly, which, though still to be drawn up, will ''bring Malaysia in line
with international standards while ensuring that the police retain the power to
prevent violent scenes on the nation's streets,'' he said on Thursday night.
The proposed reforms await drafting and approval by lawmakers. Ruling coalition
politicians have already deflated hopes of real legal change. Home Minister
Hishamuddin Hussein has said the Patriot Act in the United States and the
Anti-Terrorism Act in the United Kingdom may be used as a model for new laws to
replace the ISA.
Despite talk of respecting the right to freedom of assembly, judging by its
ongoing punitive legal actions against Bersih demonstrators, the government
clearly remains opposed to future street demonstrations. Some 30 opposition
political activists are due to face trial between October 10-14 on charges of
promoting an "illegal organization" and possession of "subversive" material.
Greg Lopez, a researcher on Malaysian politics at Australian National
University, told Asia Times Online that ''while welcome, these announcements
are just announcements.'' Lopez reminded that Najib has not followed through on
other promised changes, adding that he ''has actually reversed most of his
policies after announcing them in the face of public pressure.''
Indeed Najib's speech left a number of sensitive policies untouched by focusing
solely on political and rights-based reforms, and giving a wide berth to
Malaysia's fractious ethnic and religious relations.
Since deadly race riots in 1969 highlighted ethnic Malay anger at perceived
ethnic Chinese domination of national commerce and threatened to undermine
political stability, Malaysia has maintained a 'New Economic Policy' (NEP) that
aims to boost living standards, education and business openings for ethnic
Malays, who make up a majority 60% of the population.
Critics, however, say that the scheme is outdated as Malays have since moved up
the socio-economic ladder and intra-ethnic disparities have widened. Moreover,
the NEP has been widely pilloried for facilitating corruption and patronage and
undermining Malaysia's attractiveness to foreign investment and international
Since taking office in 2009 Najib has tinkered with the NEP, including the
launch of a New Economic Model (NEM) in March, 2010 that promises to double per
capita income by 2020. Still many feel his incremental reform of the NEP has
not gone far enough.
According to a leaked US diplomatic cable sent from the embassy in Kuala Lumpur
on February 19, 2010, ''Executing a robust NEM, however, will be even more
difficult as the PM will undoubtedly face steady opposition from within his own
political party (UMNO), particularly from members who fear their parliamentary
seats may be lost if the current patronage system is dismantled.''
Dismantling the NEP, some analysts speculate, could cause splits in Najib's
camp. The prime minister is said to be battling against hardline elements
within his party who want him removed, and the reform gambit could be part of
an effort to take the initiative from his internal opponents. Ibrahim Suffian,
programs director at Merdeka Center for Opinion Research, which carries out
political surveys in Malaysia, told Asia Times Online that ''the crucial test
to this new move by the [prime minister] is how he manages the reaction from
the hardline elements in his party and the police.''
Anil Netto is a Penang-based writer. Simon Roughneen is a foreign
correspondent. His website is www.simonroughneen.com.
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