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Najib scores on repeal of ISA
Publication Date : 12-04-2012
With the unveiling of a new law to replace the Internal Security Act (ISA), Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has finally - on his most closely-watched political reform - backed up words with action.
When he pledged to remove the ISA last September, some quarters dismissed it as an election ploy. Even if Datuk Seri Najib was sincere, they figured, hardliners in his government would kill the plan. As the targeted month of March went by and the current Parliament sitting entered its last two weeks, it seemed the sceptics were right.
But on Tuesday, Najib finally delivered, with a Security Offences (Special Measures) Bill that stripped the authorities of the power to indefinitely detain people. The ISA will be repealed when this Bill is passed, possibly next week.
In a speech at the installation of Malaysia's new King yesterday, Najib said: "The government believes that after more than half a century since Independence and practising democracy, Malaysians have reached a high level of maturity.
"In view of this, we are now ready to enter a new era where the function of government is no longer seen as limiting freedom of the individual, but instead, ensures that basic rights protected by the Constitution for each individual is assured."
The government has in recent months repealed or amended a slew of outdated and unpopular laws, such as the University and University Colleges Act and the Restricted Residence Act. It has also rescinded three Emergency proclamations and is letting all the ordinances under them - which like the ISA allow detention without trial - lapse in June.
This leaves only the Printing Presses and Publications Act, which Najib had also promised to review - to do away with the need for media companies to renew their publication licences annually.
The replacement of the ISA, which is targeted to win liberal-leaning fence sitters over to the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN), is predictably fuelling talk that Malaysia's 13th General Election is near.
There are of course many issues that will sway voter opinion, including the rising cost of living, corruption and crime. But political and legal reforms will pique the interest of this influential demographic, noted political observer Hsu Dar Ren, a former leader in BN component party Gerakan.
"The silent majority that makes up the bulk of the middle ground will acknowledge that abolishing the ISA is good... but they will want to wait and see how the new law is implemented," he said.
The key concern is abuse and unfortunately for Najib, the public's trust is limited by the generally low opinion of the police, one of the institutions charged with carrying out these reforms.
"As long as the police force is not reformed, his measures will not have the impact they could otherwise have," said political analyst Ooi Kee Beng.
Activists have already started questioning the new law. While the period of detaining a suspect has been reduced to 28 days - and can no longer be extended indefinitely - some have asked why it takes that long for a person to be brought to court.
Others pointed to the broad definition of 'security offences', saying it could lead to abuse by the police, essentially turning it into another ISA.
But the authorities have proved doubters wrong before. The Peaceful Assembly Act passed a few months ago, for instance, was rubbished by civil society groups for imposing more restrictions on gatherings. But the peaceful rallies during the anti-Lynas protest and the last day of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim's trial have largely vindicated the authorities.
All eyes will now turn to how the police handle the rally later this month by electoral reform group Bersih, a coalition of non-governmental organisations campaigning for free and fair elections in Malaysia. Regardless, the ISA's repeal is likely to take some wind out of the opposition's sails.
Even Datuk Seri Anwar - a former ISA detainee himself - commended the government yesterday for the move. He said it was the opposition's persistence that forced the government's hand.
'The ISA was one of the hottest issues the opposition attacked in the past,' said Dr Hsu. "I don't think you'll hear much of it at the next election."