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Legal advocates are taking aim after a controversial law went into effect last week in Malaysia that gives the government sweeping powers in the name of combatting terrorism.
The National Security Council Act came into effect on August 1, after parliament passed it late last year. It allows for a prime ministerial-appointed National Security Council to issue directives to any government entity, curtail movements, seize property, among other things, all while being protected from any ‘action, suit or prosecution.’
‘What makes this law really odious is that the framing of the powers that it grants to the prime minister is really very broad, the prime minister can virtually do anything as the chairperson of the National Security Council,’ says Emerlynne Gil, Senior International Legal Adviser for Southeast Asia at the International Commission of Jurists. ‘Under the act, he can declare a particular area a security risk for up to six months; he can prevent people from leaving that area or force people to leave that area. He can impose a curfew on the people in that area for up to three years. He really has very wide powers under this law.’
|Emerlynne Gil, Senior International Legal Adviser for Southeast Asia, International Commission of Jurists|
The law is just the latest in a series of new legislation that critics say gives the executive branch and armed forces undue and easily abused power.
In April, parliament passed the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which features similarly vague language and wide-ranging powers in the name of protecting Malaysia against security threats. The same month, parliament voted to expand the Sedition Act—a piece of legislation that broadly defines what might be considered an attack on the state and which is routinely used to silence government critics.
Steven Thiru, president of the IBA member organisation the Malaysian Bar says the newest law has all the hallmarks of authoritarianism. ‘The NSC Act confers and concentrates vast executive powers in the National Security Council (‘NSC’), which is chaired by the Prime Minister and functions as he dictates,’ says Thiru. ‘The Cabinet is subordinated to the NSC, which is able to exert control over regulatory authorities such as Bank Negara Malaysia, Securities Commission, and the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission. Even the authority of State Governments can be overridden,’ he wrote in a statement in June.
Emerlynne Gil, Senior International Legal Adviser for Southeast Asia, International Commission of Jurists
‘The NSC’s scope of authority over matters of ‘national security’ is expansive. As the term ‘national security’ is not explicitly defined in the NSC Act, the NSC would be able to treat almost any matter as one of national security.’
Thiru also took aim at the manner in which the law was passed, noting that it appears to be the first legislation to ever be announced without prior approval of the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong—Malayia’s monarch and head of state. Malaysia is a constitutional monarchy, and while the role is largely figurehead, the monarch is expected to assent to the law before it is announced. In the case of the NSC Act, Malaysia’s Conference of Rulers (the country’s supreme institution which is comprised of hereditary state rulers and which elects the king) urged a revision of the proposed legislation. Thiru noted that there has ‘been no explanation as to why the NSC Act was gazetted despite the reservations of the Rulers.’
On Aug. 2, jailed opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim filed suit against the law, arguing that the lack of assent by the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong made the NSC Act invalid. Though an article of the constitution stipulates that a bill becomes law after 30 days regardless of monarch’s sign-off, Anwar is seeking to arguethat the provision is unlawful.
The NSC Act comes as Prime Minister Najib Razak is fighting a major international corruption scandal. The US Department of Justice is investigating how billions of dollars were misappropriated from Najib’s state-owned development company, 1Malaysia Development Berhad. Nearly $700m alone is alleged to have been syphoned into Najib’s personal account, and within Malaysia there have been mounting protests and calls for Najib to step down.
In a statement issued late last month, Najib defended the NSC Act and said that among the critics were some who fear mongered for political reasons.‘Hardly a day goes by without another atrocity. We are far from immune in Malaysia, as the first Daesh attack on us last month showed,’ he said. ‘My government will never apologise for placing the safety and security of the Malaysian people first. These laws were necessary, and other countries have since followed our lead.’
But rights groups and members of the opposition say they have little doubt NSC Act will be used as a means to silence those who have been most outspoken against Najib.
In an op-ed published in Free Malaysia Today, opposition parliamentarian Raja Bahrin Shah questioned the true purpose of the law. ‘Is the NSC Act really to combat terrorism or is it to strike terror into the hearts and minds of the everyday citizen?’ he wrote. ‘What we generally fear is that the NSC Act will be misused for other purposes especially to silence and intimidate activists, opposition politicians and dissenting members of the general public. Such similar Acts have been misused before.’
The Malaysian government has a long history of employing legal tactics to quash criticism. Starting in the 1960s, its infamous Internal Security Act was a popular means of arresting political opponents in the name of fighting a communist threat. Though the law was repealed in 2012, the Sedition Act—which is a colonial era law dating back to 1948—is commonly used to similar ends. Last year, at least 91 people ‘were arrested, charged or investigated for sedition – almost five times as many as during the law’s first 50 years of existence,’ according to Amnesty International.