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Malaysia to repeal ISA

Bold policy changes come as Prime Minister seeks to bolster popularity ahead of election, say analysts

Updated 11:55 AM Sep 16, 2011
KUALA LUMPUR – Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak last night announced that his government would repeal two controversial laws which allow for detention without trial – the Internal Security Act (ISA) and the Emergency Ordinance – as well as lift licensing curbs on the media and review laws forbidding free public assembly.

Critics and the opposition have long blamed these laws for curbing civil liberties and silencing dissent in the country.

Bowing to pressure, the announcements come as Mr Najib seeks to bolster his flagging popularity ahead of likely snap polls early next year. While welcoming the policy changes, widely regarded as the boldest by Mr Najib since he took the helm in April 2009, opposition leaders and political analysts were cautious about the laws that would replace the ISA and their implementation.

“I am happy to announce on this historic night that the ISA will be completely repealed,” Mr Najib said in a nationally-televised speech on the eve of Malaysia Day.

Before an audience of about 800, which included his entire Cabinet, Mr Najib added: “The changes are aimed at having a modern, mature and functioning democracy which will continue to preserve public order, ensure greater civil liberty and maintain racial harmony.”

The ISA has long been a hot-button issue in Malaysia. Over the past five decades, thousands of people in Malaysia have been detained for a variety of crimes under the ISA, which allows for indefinite detention without trial.

Apart from suspected terrorists, the law has also been used against communists, forgery experts, religious militants and even opposition politicians – prompting critics to argue that in Malaysia the ISA has often been abused by the government to stifle dissent.

The ISA and the Emergency Ordinance, which allows suspects to be detained without charge for up to two years, will be replaced by two new laws.

Mr Najib said the new security laws would be introduced for preventive detention, be limited only to cases of terrorism and “ensure that basic human rights are protected”.

Under the new laws, detentions could only be extended by the court and therefore “the power of detention will be shifted from the executive to the judiciary, unless it concerns terrorism”, he added.

Later in the night, de facto Law Minister Mohamed Nazri Aziz said the legislations replacing the ISA would still allow for detention without trial but only for “terrorists”, reported The Malaysian Insider.

“The new laws are strictly for terrorism. What we are going to do now is enact similar laws like the Patriot Act in the US or the UK … We have once and for all decided that no laws should be enacted allowing for individuals to be arrested for having a difference in ideologies,” he was quoted as saying.

Malaysia’s strict media law will also be amended to allow a one-time licensing of media outlets instead of annual renewals which critics say the government has used to threaten newspapers against publishing dissenting views.

Other laws which restrict civil liberties would be reviewed, and Mr Najib pledged that the government would not detain any individuals merely on the basis of their political ideology.

“Many will question whether I am moving too far, too fast. Some will say that the reforms should only be carried out in small steps, or not at all,” Mr Najib, said in the address.

“To them I say, if a reform is the right thing to do, now is the right time to do it,” the Prime Minister said, adding that the changes may result in “short-term pain for me politically”.

The move to scrap the law has been hailed Penang Chief Minister Lim Guang Eng and an ex-ISA detainee himself as an “epochal move”.

Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim tweeted in Malay: “ISA: Welcome its abolition after being championed by the people all this while and opposed by Umno. However, need to be mindful …”

The next general election is not due until 2013 but Mr Najib is likely to call one in the next six months amid growing uncertainty about the global economic outlook, analysts say.

Despite making record gains in a 2008 general election, the Opposition led by Mr Anwar has struggled to build on that momentum, and is plagued by infighting.

But analysts say Mr Najib’s own troubles run deep and yesterday’s announcement may not be enough to reverse the ruling Barisan Nasional’s 2008 poll losses, which he needs to do to remain firmly in power.

“This will be attractive to the more educated and critical classes, typically urban professionals and minority non-Malays, but this group will also look to see whether or not this will be translated into credible change,” said Mr Ibrahim Suffian, director of the independent polling outfit the Merdeka Center.

“Najib is defining his agenda for political reform, but the devil will be in the details in whether he can translate these promises into concrete implementation,” said Ms Bridget Welsh, a Malaysia specialist at Singapore Management University.

“Institutions like the police and judiciary are also still criticised as not being independent so while he’s embraced political reforms he has touched only the surface of it,” she added.

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