With the passage in parliament of a powerful national security bill that potentially could guarantee him dictatorial powers, Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak may have set out to lift himself from his status as medium-grade satrap into a cozy club of now-departed kleptocrats and dictators like Suharto in Indonesia and Ferdinand Marcos in the Philippines. The bill was pushed through on a voice vote over opposition objections late in the evening of Dec. 3.
The government is protesting that the measure is only modeled on the UK’s Counter-Terrorism and Security Act, passed earlier this year to protect against terrorism from Islamic fanatics. But Malaysia’s version has set off a firestorm of criticism that it goes far beyond the English version and basically gives the prime minister, who faces growing opposition over two huge scandals, the power to declare martial law.
The measure and continuing arrests and repression under other legislation apparently have put Malaysia under threat of a bipartisan resolution in the US congress to condemn what is going on, according to John Malott, who served as US ambassador to Malaysia from 1996 to 1998. In late November, when President Barack Obama visited the country, he asked Najib to free opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim from prison, where critics say he had been sentenced in a blatantly unfair trial. Somewhat amazingly, given the widespread corruption and misuse of laws, Najib told the president the courts must follow the laws. A United Nations committee earlier called for Anwar’s release, naming him a Prisoner of Conscience.
Both Marcos and Suharto used the specter of a threat to national security in the 1960s from Communist aggression to declare martial law and to rule without opposition, Marcos from 1972 to 1981 while serving as president from 1965 to 1986. Suharto ruled Indonesia with an iron hand from 1967 to 1998. Both of their reigns ended in massive corruption that enriched their families beyond imagining and beggared their countries. Decades later, neither of them has recovered completely from the endemic corruption.
Bogus ISIS threat?
Top government leaders including Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein apparently began preparing the public with statements over the past weeks that Najib and others had been named targets by the Islamic State in the Middle East, statements that were met with disbelief and outright scorn. Najib, in the middle of a party conclave last year, cheered the ISIS militants and recommended that UMNO members learn from their fervor, which earned him considerable criticism.
The bill has been met vainly with widespread demands that it be withdrawn from consideration. It was introduced in the Dewan Rakyat, or parliament, on Dec. 1 and would give sweeping powers to a council headed by the prime minister to declare a security area to protect “any interest of Malaysia.” Once such a declaration is made, the security forces are permitted, among other things, to limit freedom of movement, conduct searches without warrant for evidence of violation of “any written law,” and arrest individuals without a warrant on suspicion of committing “any offence under any written law.”
N. Surendran, an opposition member of parliament from Anwar’s Parti Keadilan Rakyat, issued an analysis of the measure in which he pointed out that among other things, the Director of Operations appointed by the Council has extensive powers that include evacuating the public from their homes and resettling them; imposing curfews; wide powers of arrest, search and seizure, including entering and searching homes. Such powers raise serious and very real concerns for civil liberties. Citizens would have no legal recourse to courts against wrongful acts committed by the Council, Director of Operations or Security Forces, where these acts are done in 'good faith.' However, the opposition, weakened by infighting and factionalism, is nowhere powerful enough to block it.
It’s uncertain exactly who the law would be aimed at. Prominent public figures including Maria Chin Abdullah, the head of the Bersih (Clean) electoral reform group and Ambiga a, the former head of the Law Society, have been threatened with sedition. There has been some feeble but increasing opposition among UMNO figures concerned that Najib is wrecking the party.
After months of quiescence among the United Malays National Organization over the twin scandals, there is growing opposition in Johor, the home state of Muhyiddin Yassin, the deputy prime minister whom Najib fired in July for questioning the sources of US$681 million that mysteriously made its way into the premier’s bank account in 2013, then just as mysteriously made its way back out to a Singapore destination, then disappeared outright.
Muhyiddin and many others were also raising questions over the seemingly intractable debt problems of the state-backed 1Malaysia Development Bhd. investment fund, which Najib chairs, and which seems to have been leaking money to unknown sources almost from the time it was set up.
Mahathir Says Possible Path to Dictatorship
Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad, Najib’s most implacable enemy, denounced the measure, saying he thought the government already has too much power,” he told local media.
Phil Robertson, the Southeast Asia the deputy director of the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, said the bill is “quite clearly a tool for repression. While touted as a law to protect national security, the law provides expansive powers that could fundamentally threaten human rights and democratic rule.”
The bill, he said, “would give sweeping powers to a council headed by the Prime Minister to declare a security area to protect ‘any interest of Malaysia.’ Once such a declaration is made, the security forces are permitted, among other things, to limit freedom of movement, conduct searches without warrant for evidence of violation of “any written law,” and arrest individuals without a warrant on suspicion of committing “any offence under any written law.”
Najib has already used the colonial-era sedition law and the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act (SOSMA), which was introduced in 2012, to charge a long list of critics who have continued to bring up criticism of the PM’s dealings. The latest were a former UMNO division chief named Khairudin Abu Hassan, who publicly delivered what he said was evidence of wrongdoing on Najib’s part to law enforcement officials in the UK, the US and France, among other countries, and Matthias Chang, his lawyer. Chang, a longtime ally of Mahathir’s, was arrested in October under the SOSMA act when he went to a Kuala Lumpur police station to visit his client.
There is a growing sense of unease in the country, one of Malaysia’s top constitutional lawyers told Asia Sentinel in a telephone conversation.
“It is obvious that they want to maintain themselves in power,” the lawyer said. “I don’t think people understand how deep the rot is. It is very deep and it will have serious consequences both economically and politically. It is slow decay from within.”
The lawyer declined to give his name for fear of retribution. “Freedom of speech is badly restricted here,” he said. “Everyone is afraid, we are in trouble. The middle class are voting with their feet. Anyone who has a skill will go. The conversation almost universally is around what to do, they are telling their children abroad ‘don’t come back.’ This is the kind of perception that has permeated the country.”