What we witnessed in Parliament recently suggests that the process of democratisation in Malaysia has slowed down if not gone into reverse gear, observes Mustafa K Anuar.
The primary function of parliament in a democracy such as Malaysia’s is to provide a vital platform for lawmakers to introduce and debate laws that are supposedly meant for the collective good of ordinary citizens.
Unfortunately, the interests of ordinary Malaysians are anything but primary, if what happened recently in Parliament, when the Prevention of Terrorism Act (Pota) and the amended Sedition Act were passed, is anything to go by.
The speed with which these bills were introduced and debated in Parliament especially in the wee hours of the morning can only be interpreted as the ruling party’s desperate attempt to have these laws passed with the least hassle for reasons best known to the BN.
To be sure, these laws have wide-reaching implications. Most would agree that it is importantto have laws to safeguard the country from terrorism (in the wake of the so-called Islamic State (IS) menace) and social anarchy (caused by violent ethno-religious tension and conflicts).
But lawmakers must err on the side of caution so that civil liberties and the democratic rights of ordinary citizens are not trampled on in the name of ‘national security’.
It is especially worrying when these important laws were debated and subsequently passedway past the normal bedtime of most of the MPs, thereby depriving them of full mental concentration and enough resources to discuss meaningfully and effectively.
Instances of security-related laws passed elsewhere in the world since the 9/11 massacreindicate the tendency of certain governments to take advantage of the situation to bolster and protect the interests of the powers that be over those of the ordinary people in whose name these laws were put in place.
In many cases, such laws were deployed at the expense of the human rights of the people concerned. That is why the absence of some Pakatan Rakyat MPs in the debate of these laws invited the scorn and wrath of many concerned Malaysians.
Given the political implications of laws such as Pota and the amended Sedition Act, Malaysians should have been consulted by the federal government before the bills were passed as law. A parliamentary select committee, for instance, should have been set up to crisscross the country and consult the major stakeholders in society about the bills. This was done in the past for other bills during the Abdullah Badawi administration.
Civil society groups and concerned individuals, for example, would be more than happy to engage in such consultative encounters. The process of enacting or amending laws must bemade transparent and fair to all and sundry in a democracy. Anything less than this would bea mockery of democracy and human rights.
Several provisions in both the laws, according to critics, have serious implications for human rights, justice and freedom of expression. Worse, these new laws are seen to have further constrained our precious democratic space.
The spectre of the defunct but draconian Internal Security Act (ISA) emerges when one talks of Pota. For one thing, both have a similar feature: detention without trial. Worse, Pota cannot be subjected to any judicial review.
Given that Pota has weak safeguards against possible abuse, the path taken by the ISA is a grim reminder that Pota could follow the same ‘route’ as the ISA’s. The ISA, which was officially meant to check the growth of communism in the country, was often used by the government to arrest government critics and dissidents over the years. The 1987 Operasi Lalang clampdown is an ugly blot in our history.
Similarly, many are mindful of the way the previous Sedition Act was applied especially in recent years. Witness the arrests of mainly Opposition politicians, social activists, journalists, academics and a cartoonist – instead of those who actually spewed ‘hate’ speech on matters touching on race and religion.
Scores of people have been investigated or charged under the Sedition Act and other restrictive laws in 2014, and a few dozen more in 2015. Look out for Aliran’s Crackdown Watch section online, to be launched soon.
The amended Sedition Act allows for a broad and vague definition of what is deemed to be‘seditious’. This does not instil confidence among the public that this amended law would be any different in terms of application. If anything, the latest version of this law is in some ways worse than its previous version, especially the extension to the minimum jail term.
Hence, it begs the question: whose interests really are being served by these new laws,especially if, in effect, they trample on the people’s democratic rights and are contemptuous of the judicial system? We may get an inkling if we look at the larger social and political context in which these laws were passed.
For one thing, the political hegemony of the ruling coalition, particularly Umno, has beenunder continuous assault by the Opposition, civil society groups and concerned individuals over a host of issues. These include the GST implementation, the rising cost of living, the politicisation of Islam, restless youth, humongous financial scandals such as 1MDB and, last but not least, the nagging attacks against the Umno leadership by the indefatigable Dr Mahathir.
The critical chatter in social media about the BN government has earned the heightened attention of the ruling elite; hence the incorporation of social media and news portals into the provisions of the amended Sedition Act. In short, there will be intense state surveillance of social media and news portals, giving rise to a culture of self-censorship and muted criticism.
Interpretation of Islam by state authorities has been challenged over the years by a few Islamic groups and Muslim individuals. Examples of such cases can be seen in the controversy surrounding Kassim Ahmad (who was arrested), in a touch-the-dog event, in the hudud controversy and in the existence of Shia adherents in our midst. In other words, the diversity that prevails in Islam, particularly alternative approaches to the faith, is to be contained in Malaysia by a new provision in the amended Sedition Act.
In essence, the implementation of these two laws has the worrying effect of violating human rights, especially through the curtailing of freedom of expression. Indeed, the freedom to express one’s views online or offline is now criminalised. Equally appalling, the principle of governmental transparency and accountability is now given less emphasis because of these laws.
Malaysia is going down a slippery slope when the rule of law is replaced with rule by law. It is dangerous when checks on the arbitrary exercise of power by the powers that be are thrown out the window especially when the role of the judiciary in assessing these laws is reduced if not usurped.
The indecent haste seen in Parliament recently suggests that the process of democratisation in Malaysia has slowed down if not gone into reverse gear.
Mustafa K Anuar
Co-editor, Aliran e-Newsletter
17 April 2015