Lawyers and civil society groups in Malaysia have launched a protest campaign against a draconian new National Security Council (NSC) Bill that has been passed in the lower house of parliament and gives sweeping powers to a security council headed by the Prime Minister, Najib Razak.
The campaigners have called on the Senate to reject, amend, or delay the Bill, which has been condemned by human rights organisations and lawyers in Malaysia and abroad.
Critics of the Bill say it places too much power in Najib’s hands and opens the way to further abuses of human rights in a country where there is already heavy suppression of dissent.
The campaign was launched under the banner #TakNakDiktator (No to dictatorship).
The organisations spearheading the campaign are Lawyers for Liberty; Amnesty Malaysia; Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Voice of the People, or SUARAM); Malaysia’s National Human Rights Society (HAKAM), the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih); the Centre to Combat Corruption and Cronyism, known as C4; and Institut Rakyat, the policy think-tank established by the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (People’s Justice Party or PKR).
They say the NSC Bill represents “a quantum leap towards a dictatorship and a military-police state”.
The tabling of the new law, they say, represents an extremely dangerous step for Malaysia as it concentrates extraordinary powers within the hands of a single member of the executive arm of government. “Mechanisms of check and balance normally found within parliamentary democracies are either absent or severely compromised.”
If the Bill becomes law, the council will be empowered to designate security areas in which the authorities will be able to carry out arrests, searches, and seizures without a warrant and impose curfews.
The security forces will be able to take temporary possession of any land, any building or part of a building, or any movable property within a designated security area, and even destroy “certain unoccupied buildings”.
The director of operations will be able to evacuate people from a security area and resettle them in an area he determines.
Lawyers for Liberty said: “No-one can be held accountable and the NSC, its committees, personnel, and security forces have legal immunity from any criminal and civil proceedings, even to the extent of dispensing with holding an inquest upon the death of a person.”
HAKAM president Ambiga Sreenevasan (pictured left) said at today’s campaign launch: “No real democracy would have such a legislation and they would not give this power to one person. This is not about security, but about power.”
The campaigners cite the lack of consultation with the Conference of Rulers as one reason the NSC Bill should be withdrawn.
They are appealing to Malaysians to send letters to senators calling on them to reject the Bill.
Malaysia’s head of state, the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, can also refuse to give his assent to the Bill. While constitutional amendments prevent him from rejecting it outright, the campaigners say, “his refusal to assent would send a clear signal that the Bill is fundamentally flawed and should be done away with”.
Article 66(4A) of Malaysia’s federal constitution states that a bill will become law thirty days after its approval by the Senate, even if the Agong does not assent to it.
‘Zimbabweization’ of Malaysia
Former ambassador Dennis Ignatius (pictured left) said the new Bill was “nothing less than a prelude to dictatorship, the final step in the ‘Zimbabweization’ of Malaysia”.
In a recent report, Human Rights Watch (HRW) said a “culture of fear” had already been created in the country, and there was “a disturbing trend of abuse of the legal process, including late-night arrests and unjustifiable remands, and a pattern of selective prosecution”.
The Coalition on a Plan of Action for Malaysia (Gabungan Bertindak Malaysia or GBM) said the new Bill could be a licence for the government to impose martial rule, nationally or partially, when it saw fit. “It is not inconceivable’” the GBM said, “that, in the event of its electoral defeat, the NSC could impose martial law to prevent public protests.”
GBM urged all Malaysians to stand up and protest vehemently against the new Bill.
Lawyers say that the legislation is unconstitutional and in breach of fundamental freedoms contained in Malaysia’s federal constitution. There are sure to be challenges in court.
The ruling Barisan Nasional coalition pushed the Bill through parliament on December 3. It was passed by 107 votes to 74.
The entire opposition – the PKR, the Democratic Action Party (DAP), the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) and the breakaway Islamist party Amanah – voted against the legislation.
The campaigners against the NSC Bill say it hands over to the prime minister powers that are currently held by the defence and home ministers. Also, while the word “emergency” is not specifically used in the new Bill, it effectively grants Najib similar powers to those now held by the Agong, who is the only person currently empowered, under the constitution, to declare a state of emergency.
No limits on security area
If the Bill becomes law, the security council will be able to declare any location in the country a “security area” so as to protect what is described as “any interest of Malaysia”. This designation can last for six months.
Once such a declaration is made, the security forces will be able 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”.
The security declaration can be renewed an infinite number of times and there are no limits as to the size of the area in question. A large part or even the whole of Malaysia could be declared a security area.
‘Dangers of abuse’
The NSC will be chaired by the prime minister and composed of the deputy prime minister, the ministers of defence, home affairs, and communication and multimedia, the chief secretary, the commander of the Armed Forces, and the inspector-general of police. Najib can choose to ignore the advice of fellow council members if he so wishes.
Najib (pictured left) said in October that further legislation was needed to protect Malaysia from terrorist threats. He said a new Act was necessary to create the NSC legislatively, as was done in several other countries. NSC “transformation measures”, he said, would strengthen the council and enable better coordination of national security policy.
Opponents of the Bill say there is more than enough legislation in place already to cover any security threat, and the new law, like other measures already in force, will be used to stifle opposition.
The Sarawak state assemblyman for Ba’kelalan, Baru Bian, said the passing of the NSC Bill was the final nail in the coffin of democracy in Malaysia.
The deputy director of the Asia Division of HRW, Phil Robertson, said: “Now we know what the path to Malaysian dictatorship looks like.” The new law, he said, was “far broader than can be justified by any real threat to Malaysia’s national security, and creates a real risk of abuse in the hands of Prime Minister Najib and his embattled government”.
The anti-opposition crackdown in Malaysia has intensified over the past year in the face of rising public discontent over issues ranging from the imposition of a new Goods and Services Tax (GST) to the government’s response to a corruption scandal involving the government-owned 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB). The 1MDB board of advisors is chaired by Najib, who is accused of siphoning off huge amounts of public money for his own use.
Anti-corruption investigators say that, in 2013, Najib received 2.6 billion ringgit (about 700 million US$) in a personal bank account, but that the money was deposited by an unnamed donor in the Middle East, and did not come from 1MDB. Najib has denied there was any wrongdoing, or personal gain, in his receipt of the money.
The DAP MP for Petaling Jaya Utara,Tony Pua, asked why Najib was in such a desperate rush to pass the new Act. “Clearly, too much power is being concentrated in the hands of the Prime Minister.”
Ignatius said: “The Bill creates, in effect, a police state wherein the government and its agents are empowered, in the name of national security, to do anything they want with total impunity and without regard to constitutional constraints and obligations.”
The International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) has also called on the Senate and the Agong to reject the Bill, “with a view to returning it the House to make necessary reforms in line with the rule of law”.
ICJ senior international legal adviser for Southeast Asia, Emerlynne Gil, said the wide-ranging powers granted to the members of the NSC lacked any form of safeguards and this, she said, would “inevitably lead to arbitrary exercise of authority, in contravention of the rule of law”.
She said the manner in which the Bill was passed in parliament, just two days after it was tabled, highlighted the need for reforms in the lawmaking processes.
“The same rushed manoeuvres occurred when the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA) and amendments to the Sedition Act were hastily passed in parliament earlier this year.”
The Chief Minister of Penang, Lim Guan Eng¸ who is the DAP secretary-general, said the new Bill was an attack on the rights of state governments and on democracy itself.
Lim said state governments would not be consulted before somewhere was declared a security area, and only the security forces would then have authority over that area.
Risks for Sarawakians
Baru Bian (pictured left) said the passing of the new legislation marked “the beginning of a crackdown on dissent, the silencing of the opposition and a death of whatever vestiges are left of the democracy we had in Malaysia”.
He said the Bill usurped the powers of the Agong and gave absolute power to the prime minister to do anything he wished, without accountability, in the name of “national security”’. The new Bill was totally unnecessary, Baru said.
“The stealthy way in which it was revealed to parliament, giving the opposition and civil society no opportunity to study it in depth, and the unholy haste with which it was pushed through within a few hours is telling of a prime minister who lives in fear of losing his power and is desperate to put an end to the damning revelations about his entanglement in corruption and crime.”
It was particularly telling, Baru said, that the most authoritarian former prime minister (Mahathir Mohamad) had warned against the Bill, saying it would steer the country into a dictatorship.
Baru pointed to the risks for Sarawakians: “All Malaysians should be very worried about the wide and vague definition of ‘national security’. Sarawakians should be on high alert.”
Malaysia’s ruling regime, Baru says, has been used to a compliant and pliable Sarawak government under the previous administration, but things have changed under the new chief minister, Adenan Satem, who has called for twenty percent of oil royalties for Sarawak and for autonomy in education in the state, and has declared English to be an official language of Sarawak.
“Will the prime minister abuse this law to cower Sarawakians who are fighting for Sarawak’s rights?” Baru asked. “What if the prime minister decides that what we are asking for is a threat to ‘national security’?”
A wide definition of ‘national security’
In an article in The Malay Mail Online, Khairie Hisyam Aliman points out that the definition of national security in the Bill includes socio-political stability, economic stability, and national unity.
“We don’t know where ‘national security’ really ends, which means we don’t know where the jurisdiction of this council really ends. For all intents and purposes, this council seems empowered over anything and everything it thinks is covered by the phrase ‘national security’.”
United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) minister Abdul Rahman Dahlan said on Twitter that opponents of the Bill would perhaps feel differently about the new security legislation if Kuala Lumpur experienced a bomb attack.
The minister made his remark in reply to a tweet from Boo Soon Yew, who suggested the law might be used to serve the political ambitions of those in power.
“If a bomb exploded in KL, then perhaps you guys would have a different view. But sadly that would be too late,” Abdul Rahman tweeted.
Campaigners doubt government assurances
A petition has been launched on Change.org calling on all members of the Senate to reject the new Bill.
Many campaigners have changed their profile photos on social media to a #TakNakDiktator protest image.
“Assurances that the legislation will not be abused give little comfort,” anti-NSC Bill campaigners said. “The authorities have used the harsh pre-trial detention powers provided under the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act (SOSMA) despite similar assurances.”
SOSMA and POTA already provide powers that violate international human rights standards, the campaigners say. “These are now joined by the NSC Bill, which represents an extremely excessive set of additional measures that depart from international norms.”
The government has tried to draw a comparison between the Malaysian NSC Bill and the British National Security Council, chaired by Britain’s prime minister, the campaigners add. “It is important to note that the British NSC is merely a Cabinet committee for the formulation of policy. It is not an enabling legislation with draconian powers like the Malaysian NSC Bill.”
(The security council would also include the deputy prime minister.)
Update on 9/12/2015:
The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM) said it was extremely concerned about the hasty and unexpected tabling of the NSC Bill.
It called for the legislation to be reconsidered with sufficient time given to evaluate how it can effectively deal with the threat of terrorism while also protecting civil liberties that are fundamental to democracy.
“The commission regrets that such an important piece of legislation that will have serious effects on, and inroads into, the fundamental and civil liberties of citizens and the very core of the federal constitution itself, was not subject to any form of public scrutiny or consultation before it was tabled in parliament,” SUHAKAM said in a statement issued today.
“Even more regrettable, the effects of the Bill were not properly considered by a parliamentary Joint and/or select committee in a non-partisan manner, or the commission, before being passed.”
The commission said it was also extremely concerned that many provisions of the NSC Bill were couched in fairly general terms with hardly any clear definitions or safeguards to guide the declaration of a security area or the implementation of the Bill, when enforced.
“Such unfettered powers with no proper check and balance do not augur well for the state of human rights in the country. The vague concept of security may also be interpreted to criminalise the expression of thoughts, opinions or beliefs on public matters, including on government