Global Geopolitics & Political Economy / IPS
By Baradan Kuppusamy
KUALA LUMPUR, Apr 20, 2012 (IPS) – Malaysia’s new internal security law is as draconian as the colonial law it has replaced, but has the saving grace that it will not target political opponents of the government, say critics.
After a 52-year history of serious allegations of abuse that included the targeting of political opponents, the dreaded Internal Security Act (ISA) was replaced by the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act passed by parliament on Apr. 17.
"The new law is one of those extraordinary examples where the executive has voluntarily surrendered its powers to the judiciary," said Chandra Muzaffar, academic and president of the Malaysia-based International Movement for a Just World.
"The power to detain a person without trial is the ultimate expression of unfettered authority and now that power has been relinquished," Muzaffar told IPS, describing the major point contained in the new Act.
Prime Minister Najib Razak proposed repeal of the ISA in a speech delivered on Malaysia Day, Sep. 15, 2011, as part of major reforms ahead of possible snap elections this year.
The new law seeks to strike a balance between citizens’ civil liberties and the state’s need to curb terrorism, espionage and possible breakdown in racial relations in this multi-ethnic society built by British colonials who imported Chinese and Indian indentured labourers in the 1850s.
While racial and religious conflagrations cannot be ruled out, Malaysians have shown signs of being ready to bury ethnic differences and stand up for principles first, going by recent voting patterns. The new law was passed without amendments, ignoring opposition demands for better checks and balances during the debate, and the government extolling its virtues secure in the knowledge that it enjoyed a majority in the legislature.
Unlike the ISA where government critics could be detained without trial, the new law specially states that no person can be detained merely for his political beliefs. Further, it abolishes the home ministry’s powers to detain anyone without trial for any number of years.
It states that no detention without trial can extend beyond a period of 28 days, and adds a "sunset clause" for detention to be reviewed every five years and approved by three-fourths majority in both houses of parliament.
Police must also inform the detainee’s next of kin within 48 hours of the arrest, and detentions can be challenged in a court of law.
The repeal of the ISA will not benefit about 50 people at the notorious Kamunting detention centre. Nor will the centre be closed down.
Arguing in parliament, opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim welcomed the changes and the repeal, saying that opposition to the ISA had reached a very high level. But, the new bill was not much better, he added.
"Provisions in the new bill are against the spirit of democracy and contravene human rights principles," Anwar said. "A special court will be formed for this purpose…detention is still detention whether court orders it or the (home) minister decides," he said.
Most people, while thankful that the old ISA has been repealed, are undecided whether they should express support for the new Act when they get to vote in the general elections.
Najib is banking on reforms, that the opposition claims merely scratch the surface without making real and fundamental changes, to fetch him votes.
The 13-party National Front government lost badly in the 2008 general elections and all eyes are on a return match that will decide who rules the country for the next five years – the Pakatan Rakyat opposition coalition led by Anwar or the Najib-led ruling National Front.
Anwar, once a senior leader of the National Front, was himself the victim of a political vendetta which saw him spending several years in jail.
Voters had, out of frustration with the slow pace of reforms under former prime minister Abdullah Badawi, voted for the opposition in large numbers.
Opinion is also divided among former ISA detainees with some saying they became more radicalised while under detention like Uthayakumar Ponnusamy, a lawyer and Hindu Rights activist and others like Ibrahim Ali, a parliamentarian who was detained twice, who says the ISA did a lot of good to the country.
The ISA was first enacted to fight communist insurgency in the 1950s and 1960s, but its wide "catch-all" provisions were turned against political opponents especially under the long 22-year-rule of Dr Mahathir Mohamad as prime minister.
The worst case of ISA misuse was in 1987 when Mahathir had over 100 parliamentarians, critics, and opposition lawmakers arrested and incarcerated in detention camps.
One worrying aspect of the new law is the role of a judge when detaining a person – all it takes is for police to make an oral request.
But the government says detentions can be challenged in court. "Earlier there was no judicial review (under the ISA) but now you can turn to the courts," Najib said in parliament on Apr. 16.
All rights reserved, IPS – Inter Press Service, 2012.
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