When Datuk Seri Najib Razak was appointed prime minister on April 3, 2009, he took over from Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who had fallen from grace after Barisan Nasional suffered its worst-ever loss in the 2008 general election. As the sixth prime minister, Najib’s ascent to the post also came at a time of increasing demands by Malaysian voters for political and electoral reforms.
Following the 2011 Bersih 2.0 street rally in Kuala Lumpur, public and international backlash against the high number of civilian arrests and incidences of violence forced Najib to pledge to review some of the country’s laws seen as obstructions to civil liberties. Detractors, however, say the some of these reforms have not enhanced, but further eroded civil liberties. Here are some key laws that were abolished, amended or introduced in the past six years under Najib’s leadership:
Peaceful Assembly Act 2012
The Peaceful Assembly Act (PAA) was passed in December 2011 and was the first proposed law to be tabled after the Bersih 2.0 rally. Meant to facilitate more organised forms of public demonstrations, the act replaces provisions in the Police Act which required a police permit for such gatherings. Instead, organisers must notify authorities 10 days before a rally and adhere to restrictions and conditions imposed by police.
The PAA’s provision on punishment for rally organisers who fail to comply with the 10-day notice has been a contentious one in the courts, with the Court of Appeals at first ruling that it was unconstitutional, but then reversing its earlier ruling by a different bench in October.
Internal Security Act (ISA)
Passed in 1960 to counter a communist insurgency in Malaya, critics have long claimed that the ISA – which allowed for indefinite detention without trial – was used instead to detain thousands of Malaysians purely for posing political threats to BN.
In 2011, Najib promised to abolish the ISA and replace it with two other preventive security laws. The act was repealed in June 2012. Najib’s administration also lifted three emergency proclamations in 2012, rendering the Emergency Public Order and Prevention of Crime Ordinance 1969 (EO) void. Critics said the EO was as draconian and inhumane as the ISA as it also allowed for detainees to be held for two years without trial.
The Bersih 4 rally in August 2015 called on Datuk Seri Najib Razak to resign as prime minister. Shortly after, the organisers, opposition politicians and civil society leaders were arrested. – The Malaysian Insider file pic, January 2, 2016. The Bersih 4 rally in August 2015 called on Datuk Seri Najib Razak to resign as prime minister. Shortly after, the organisers, opposition politicians and civil society leaders were arrested. – The Malaysian Insider file pic, January 2, 2016. Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012 (Sosma).
The Security Offences Act (Sosma), like its predecessor the ISA, provides for special measures by the authorities in tackling security offences. However, Sosma differs from the ISA in that those charged are accorded a trial in the High Court. Approved by Parliament on April 17, 2012, the legislation has been criticised for its lack of clear definition for punishable offences, such as “sabotage”, and posing a threat to national security, thus giving room for abuse by those in authority.
Printing Presses and Publications Act 2012
The Printing Presses and Publications (Amendments) Bill 2012 was approved in April 2012, doing away with the need for annual printing permits. Publishers can also challenge in court any decision by the Home Ministry to revoke or suspend permits.
Universities and University Colleges Act 2012
Amendments to the 1971 Universities and University Colleges Act were made in 2012, which lifted a ban on student participation in politics and public gatherings. While students are still barred from acting on behalf of political parties, the amendments meant students could now express their opinions and make statements on political or academic issues.
Section 124B of the Penal Code 2012
In 2012, amendments to the Penal Code were tabled in Parliament to include Section 124B to deal with violent offences leading to activities detrimental to parliamentary democracy.
However, 17 people were detained in August 2015 under Section 124B for allegedly organising a sit-in outside Parliament, prompting critics and rights groups to claim that the new law was being used to silence political dissent. This section was also used in investigations into opposition members who have criticised 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) and against some Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) officers questioned over alleged information leaks on probes into 1MDB.
Section 114A of the Evidence Act 2012
Amendments to the Evidence Act were also passed in 2012, introducing Section 114A which enables authorities to hold publishers and owners of websites accountable for seditious, defamatory or libellous postings. Critics of the amendment say the new section is an affront to Internet freedom, as it shifts the burden of proof of wrongdoing to the Internet user and publisher, rather than the prosecution.
Sedition Act 2015
In 2012, during a speech in Kuala Lumpur, Najib promised to abolish the Sedition Act 1948, to be replaced by unity legislation. However, when he addressed the Umno general assembly two years later, the party president vowed instead to strengthen the act to protect the sanctity of Islam and other religions. In April 2015, amendments to the Sedition Act were passed by Parliament to make it seditious to insult any religion, while decriminalising criticism of the government and judiciary.
However, rights groups say the amended law represents a greater threat to human rights and free speech, citing the increased jail term for sedition cases to seven years from three, and the right of the government to demand a retraction of supposedly seditious material from online and print media as just some of the provisions that make the act an easy tool for abuse by authorities.
Human rights group Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram) recently released data showing a five-fold increase in 2015 from 2014 of individuals investigated, detained or charged under the controversial law. There were 220 individuals or cases under the Sedition Act in 2015 compared with 44 in 2014. In 2013, there were 11 cases and eight in 2012. The amendments are not yet in force.
Prevention of Terrorism Act 2015
The Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) was passed in April 2015 and came into effect in September last year. The act empowers authorities to detain terror suspects without trial, and disallows judicial reviews in any court. An initial detention period of up to 59 days can also be extended up to two years by the Prevention of Terrorism Board, which has power above the courts.
National Security Council Bill 2015
On December 22, 2015, the National Security Council Bill was passed to tackle violent extremism, allowing the council chaired by the prime minister to declare any area in the country as a “security zone”, and accords authorities powers similar to emergency powers. The bill allows for the arrest, search and seizure of citizens and property in security zones. Critics say the security bill gives unfettered powers to a sitting prime minister without the need to get a royal consent during national crises. – January 2, 2016.
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