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Malaysians fearful of an emerging tyranny

Draconian new law could clear the way for dictatorship

ucanews.com reporter, Kuala Lumpur

ucanews.com reporter, Kuala Lumpur

Updated: August 03, 2016 10:18 AM GMT
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Malaysians fearful of an emerging tyranny

Malaysia's Prime Minister Najib Razak (right) and national police chief Khalid Abu Bakar (left) attend the opening session of the 36th Association of Southeast Asian Nations Chiefs of Police Conference in Putrajaya on July 26. Critics say that Malaysia's new National Security Council Act is a serious step backward on human rights by Najib. (Photo by AFP)

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Malaysians were handed a new grievance this week — a chilling law that allows security forces to conduct searches without a warrant and removes the requirement for inquests into police killings.

The National Security Council Bill grants sweeping powers to a seven-person council comprising of the prime minister, police and defense chiefs and several ministers who are now empowered to designate security areas where curfews can be imposed and arrests, searches, and seizures made without judicial review.

Prime Minister Najib Razak's coalition government has argued that the new law is needed because of the Jihadist threat Malaysia is now facing. The bill was pushed through parliament in December despite the fact the king had serious reservations and refused to sign it.

A flood of critics and commentators in the predominantly Muslim country say the law is unconstitutional. Human Rights Watch deputy director (Asia Division) Phil Robertson called the legislation "a trapdoor to dictatorial rule, opening the real possibility of perpetually deepening rights abuses in Malaysia."

Wan Saiful Wan Jan, who heads the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, said in June that civil society is concerned that the National Security Council could be used against anything that the government is unhappy with including public protests.

Ambiga Sreenevasan, Malaysia's National Human Rights Society president, worried that the government was moving towards dictatorship and a "military police state."

Ambiga said in a statement in June that the government is behaving "as if they are accountable to no-one, neither the rulers, nor the people."

"The fact that there were no amendments to the bill is proof of this. If this is not a dictatorship, then what is?" she asked as head of the #TakNakDiktator (Reject Dictatorship) coalition which represents nine human rights groups.

On Aug. 1, jailed former opposition leader, Anwar Ibrahim filed an application seeking to declare the National Security Council Act unconstitutional. He is also seeking an injunction to prevent the NSC from exercising its powers under the act.

"We have to take action and do something because it's important," Anwar's wife and current opposition leader, Wan Azizah Wan Ismail told reporters after they filed the summons at the Kuala Lumpur High Court on Aug. 2.

There's little hope Anwar's bid will be successful given that the government has already ignored concerns brought by the Conference of Rulers (a top governing body).

Prime Minister Najib has not inspired confidence during his tenure. A multi-billion-dollar scandal swirls around him and judicial authorities in several countries are investigating the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) fund scandal that is linked to him and his family.

Two weeks before the new law came into force there has been increasing pressure on him to step down after the US Department of Justice filed civil lawsuits alleging that over $3.5 billion was misappropriated from 1MDB. The lawsuits seek to seize more than US$1 billion of assets allegedly siphoned from the fund, saying they were part of "an international conspiracy to launder money."

The civil lawsuits do not name Najib, but refer to a high-ranking government official who received over US$700 million of the misappropriated funds. Reuters quoted a source familiar with the investigations as saying the official, named "Malaysian Official 1" in the lawsuits, was Najib.

His government has been unconvincing in dealing with racial and religious hostility in its own ranks inviting repeated censure from various groups including the Catholic Church.

Najib has denied any wrongdoing but many fear the new law will be used to silence critics.

Nevertheless, nobody should underestimate the threat of extremism.

Malaysians in general are a pretty law-abiding group who loathe excessive force. They have shown they are reasonable and most would sooner focus on something more optimistic than warnings about a dangerous world.

So is there a better way of dealing with the threat of terrorism?

Embracing liberal ideals may be one way to overcome discontent. Another is to ensure government accountability and not let it ignore liability.

Freedom, prosperity and commerce builds confidence. Citizens must not be treated as though they are in danger.

Political leaders hanging on to power must also realize that the voters will decide their fate. They cannot rely on a draconian law to by-pass this inevitability.

The Barisan Nasional coalition government has seen its popularity wane since 2008. In the last election in 2013, it just managed to avoid being booted out despite losing the popular vote.

If the new law stands Malaysians will still have a way of beating tyranny at the ballot box when the next general election comes in late 2018.

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