Two alarm bells for Malaysians

By Ivy Josiah

Two alarm bells went off last week. The Malaysian civil society, opposition parties, academics, lawyers, the Bar Council, even a former ambassador and ordinary citizens were up in arms as another bill was bulldozed through parliament, all within two and a half days. 

The National Security Council Bill has been hailed the final nail on the coffin for fundamental freedom, as it enables enormous powers to the Prime Minister (PM).

On the face of it, this new law will allow the setting up of a National Security Council with eight members: The sitting Prime Minister (as chairman); the Deputy Prime Minister (as deputy chairman); the ministers in charge of defence, home affairs and communication/multimedia, respectively; the Chief Secretary to the government; the chief of the armed forces; and the Inspector General of Police. 

Note that presently, all these positions are held by West Malaysians, something that East Malaysian members of parliament (MPs) had a lot to say about this during the six-hour debate in parliament. Disturbingly, the PM needs to only seek advice from his eight-man council but can choose to ignore it.

The first alarm bell that went off is the realisation that absolute power can now be in the hands of the PM alone. The Bar Council described it as a “lurch towards an authoritarian government”.  It now means that ultimately, the PM can dictate what constitutes a security issue and deem any part of Malaysia a security area.  

As security is not clearly defined, a lawyer has already pointed out that this could even be an area where protesters want to gather to make demands – let’s say for a PM’s resignation, or for free and fair elections, or for racial unity.

Now, once a security area has been declared, security forces can go in and take temporary possession of any land, any building or part of a building, or any movable property, use necessary force (undefined in the Bill and may actually allow for torture), and arrest – without a warrant – persons who are deemed a security threat. 

The scary, if not outrageous, provision is in Clause 38 of the bill whereby the council and the forces are protected from legal proceedings, i.e. they are given immunity. For instance, there will be no automatic inquest on killings incurred in this security area as long as a magistrate is satisfied that the person was killed as a result of operations.  

The second alarm bell that has been ringing for some time now is the stealthy way a law can be passed in Malaysia, a law that can affect 30 million Malaysians, all within two and half days.  

In theory, laws are made after going through the two houses of parliament: The Dewan Rakyat (House of Representatives) and the Dewan Negara (Senate). A Bill goes through three readings before it is passed, so that in theory, MPs can scrutinise it line by line, propose amendments, or even argue to withdraw it.

Clearly, this could not happen in a fraught debate lasting just six hours, when you first knew of it on the evening of Tuesday, Dec 1 (when the Minister in the PM’s Department tabled it) but were only able to download the draft bill on Wednesday, Dec 2 and then boom, Parliament passed it on Thursday night, Dec 3.

We are not allowed to have a voice, we do not have the opportunity to study the Bill, compare it to existing laws, understand the ramifications, raise legitimate concerns, offer legal interpretations, suggest alternative legislations that can address national security or arrange for public debates. Surely the right of citizens to participate and give inputs into the making of a law is the mark of a mature democracy?

The ruling government in Malaysia has, in the past and on occasion, engaged with civil society over a period of time, working together to produce a Bill before it is tabled at Parliament. On Dec 2, activists and lawyers valiantly tried to influence the ruling government MPs who had the numbers to vote to withdraw or at the very least, defer it to allow more time to address legitimate concerns.

Within one day, on Dec 2, civil society groups put together a two-page document and went to Parliament. It was a fruitless exercise from the word go; activists were stopped at the security gate and their stack of the two-page memorandums were ‘confiscated’. 

Finally, with the help from opposition MPs, both activists and documents were allowed up the hill to Parliament – only to be stopped at the front doors. The activists stood their ground, waited outside, and pounced on every MP who drove up in their plush cars as they returned from lunch.

A few accepted the memorandum, promising to read it, while others did not make eye contact and simply whizzed past the group. All opposition MPs accepted the lobby document. They even managed a 12-minute meeting with the Minister from the Prime Minister’s Department, who had tabled the bill.

However, all were to no avail as their minds were already made up. The ruling MPs were not allowed to vote according to their conscience but to follow their party policy. The result: The fatal bill was passed with 107 ‘Yes’ votes, while 74 MPs opposed it.

What next? Civil society will labour on to lobby the Senate, where there will be three readings before the Bill is passed and becomes law.  Public pressure is mounting; already an anonymous citizen called Rakyat Malaysia – Citizen Malaysia started a petition on change.org, urging the Senate to reject the bill.

We live in hope, as there have been precedents at the Senate stage where bills were sent back or withdrawn altogether due to demands from the public. The question that remains is, will the politicians listen to the people or turn against the people?

Ivy Josiah was formerly Executive Director of Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO), one of Malaysia’s leading women’s rights organisations. She is currently WAO’s fundraiser and host of the web-based talk show, The IvyGram.