Malaysia's Civil Liberties Vow Under Fire

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak has moved to lift three long-standing emergency laws that allowed for detention without trial and to allow university students to participate in politics.

While rights groups have long called for such changes, the government’s commitment to boosting civil rights has come under fire this week after legislation banning street protests was tabled in parliament.

Najib is likely to win praise for his moves to allow university students to take part in politics and lift the emergency declarations, but the government’s tabling of the Peaceful Assembly Act has sparked complaints from rights groups who assert that the proposed law would be more repressive than current ones.

Their complaints come after the recent arrests of 13 people under a controversial security law that allows for indefinite detention without trial, another law Najib has pledged to abolish.

On Thursday, Najib called on parliament to revoke proclamations of emergency that had been issued in the 1960s and 1970s, and announced plans to amend the Universities and University Colleges Act to allow students to join political parties.

But it was this week’s tabling of the proposed law governing assemblies that prompted the opposition and rights groups to accuse the premier of reneging on his September announcement to provide better protection for civil rights.

“My immediate reaction is that it’s an insult to all Malaysians,” said Ambiga Sreenevasan, a rights activist who led a rally calling for free and fair elections in July, referring to the Peaceful Assembly Act. “It flies in the face of what the prime minister promised. The impression given was that they were going to respect the right to freedom of assembly. This bill shows total disrespect for that fundamental right.”

While Najib has described the Peaceful Assembly Act as “revolutionary” and a “giant leap” towards improving individual freedom, according to online reports, the opposition has called for the bill to be withdrawn.

Under current legislation, Malaysians must apply for a police permit for gatherings of more than five people.

The Peaceful Assembly Act would not require people to obtain a permit but organisers would have to give 30 days advance notice to authorities, except for assemblies planned for designated areas. Police would be able to impose a number of conditions, including the date, time and duration of the assembly, the place of the assembly and the “conduct of participants during the assembly”.

The proposed law would prohibit street protests, and assemblies would not be permitted within 50 metres of prohibited areas such as hospitals, schools and places of worship. Anyone under the age of 21 would not be permitted to organise an assembly.

People who take part in street protests would be subject to fines of up to 10,000 ringgit. Anyone who brings a child to an assembly or allows a child to attend an assembly other than those stated in the legislation could be fined up to 20,000 ringgit.

Rights groups, opposition parties and the Malaysian Bar Council believe the proposed bill would impose more prohibitive restrictions than currently exist.

N. Surendran, vice president of the opposition People’s Justice Party, said that the law was unconstitutional and “makes a mockery of our democratic values”.

“It is clear that the real intention of Najib and his government is to make it as difficult and burdensome as possible for the people to peacefully assemble,” he said in a statement.

On Thursday, Najib said he was committed to making Malaysia “a modern, progressive nation”, which was why he was announcing an “end to the emergency laws, an end to regressive legislation that allows opposing voices to be stifled and an end to the ban on students in political parties”.

“All our moves are the result of the government's respect for the people's aspirations and listening and responding to the pulse of the people. It is not cheap rhetoric or false promises; it is one of taking a brave moral stand,” he said.

However, rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have also condemned the recent arrests of 13 people under the Internal Security Act on suspicion of militant activities in the Malaysian state of Sabah.

“The detention of 13 people under the ISA shows that it’s still business as usual in Malaysia when it comes to trampling suspects’ basic rights,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

Najib has pledged to repeal the security law next year and replace it with new legislation. While detention without trial would still be permitted, Najib has said that the new law would provide for a “substantially reduced period of detention”.

Abolishing the security law was part of a raft of reforms Najib announced in September after the government suffered a decline in public support. Many commentators blamed the government’s handling of the July protest, where police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse demonstrators, for damaging its public image.

Ms. Sreenevesan, chair of Bersih, the coalition of non-government organisations that led the July protest, said that she had initially been encouraged by the prime minister’s September announcement because she “assumed good faith on the part of our leaders”. She said she had been shocked this week upon learning about the “choking” restrictions in the Peaceful Assembly Act.

Analysts believe she won’t be the only Malaysian disappointed by the assembly law.

James Chin, a political science professor and director of the school of arts and social sciences at Monash University Malaysia, said the public, especially middle-class voters, had held high expectations for the promised reforms. He expects that the tabling of the assembly law will “backfire on the government” because the “overwhelming majority of the middle class think that the government has backpedalled on its promises of reform”.

Chin said the proposed law was likely to dent support for Najib among middle-class voters at the next election.

“It will damage his public persona as a reformer,” he said.

Chin believes that lifting the emergency declarations will not give Najib a boost, because he said “the overwhelming majority of Malaysians didn’t even know about the emergency declarations.

Ong Kian Ming, a political analyst and lecturer at UCSI University in Kuala Lumpur, said any boost in support Najib may have received with his September announcement would dissipate with the tabling of the assembly law.

While he believes the proposed law represents a “slight improvement” because demonstrators will no longer require a police permit, Ong said the common public perception of the law and the recent arrests under the security law was negative.

“Both of these things in combination don’t seem to herald a definite shift on the part of Najib to really liberalise political freedoms in the country,” he said.

Chin said that the prohibitive contents of the bill exposed divisions within the government.

“Although Najib wants to roll out the reforms, many senior ministers and the bureaucracy, especially the police and the Attorney-General’s office, are not in favour of reform. You can also read it as how difficult it is in Malaysia to reform the system that still very much reflects the iron rule of Mahathir,” he said, referring to former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.

While analysts expect the bill to be approved during this parliamentary session, Ms Sreenevesan did not rule out the possibility that civil society groups may return to the streets to voice their opposition to the proposed law.

“We are looking into all possibilities. I think civil society will be discussing this and see what we can do to make our voices heard,” she said, adding that the government had failed to “read the people”.

“They think that by banning street protests it’s not going to happen. Well, they’re mistaken. If they think they can force people to shut up by having restrictive laws, that’s the totally wrong reaction.

(Liz Gooch is a Malaysia-based journalist. She can be reached at lizgooch@gmail.com.)