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Will Malaysia Repeal its Internal Security Act?

September 21, 2011

On the eve of Malaysia Day (Sept 16), Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak made his boldest political move to date. In a nationally televised address to the nation, the Prime Minister announced his intention to repeal the controversial Internal Security Act (ISA) along with several other restrictive laws. “The time has come for us to take another step forward, not only in economics and education, but also in upholding democratic principles,” the PM said.

The 50-year-old ISA, established initially to deter communist activity in Malaysia, allows for preventative detention without trial or criminal charges where national security is perceived to be at risk. Since its enactment, the ISA has been used to arrest thousands of people including trade unionists, student leaders, labour activists, political activists, religious groups, academics, and NGO activists. The ISA has been harshly criticized as an outdated instrument used by the government to control public life and suppress open debate. The PM announced that the ISA will be replaced by a law that would incorporate more judicial oversight and limit police powers to detain people for preventative reasons.

Malaysians are surprised and somewhat skeptical. They still remember quite vividly the July 9 protest march when thousands of Malaysians marched in the streets of Kuala Lumpur in support of BERSIH (which means “clean” in Malay), a loose coalition of 62 non-governmental organizations (NGOs) seeking electoral reform. Though the Bersih Rally was relatively mild and orderly when compared with the Arab Spring and the London riots in Tottenham, it was seen by the ruling coalition as an illegal, destabilizing anti-government movement. The government responded by restricting entry into Kuala Lumpur, using tear gas and water cannons on the demonstrators, and arresting over 1,700 people. Videos of the rally and the government’s response went viral globally, tarnishing the image of Prime Minister Najib’s administration as moderate and based on democratic principles.

Announcing a repeal of the ISA is politically savvy yet risky. Najib’s first hurdle will be to secure the endorsement of his proposal by his cabinet and then to get it passed in parliament. Precedent is not on his side. When former Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi tried to push through similar reforms during his time in office the hardliners within his party did not back him. He lost the support of his party shortly thereafter and conceded leadership to his then Deputy, Najib. Despite the conservative elements of his own party, Najib seems willing to take the risk.

Some observers suggest that Najib might be hoping that if he were to successfully overturn some of Malaysia’s more restrictive laws he may win back the confidence of voters lost during the 2008 general elections and secure a solid majority in the 13th general elections, expected to be called before 2013. The Bersih rally crackdown, coupled with Malaysia’s rising cost of living, have reduced the PM’s approval ratings from 65 percent to 59 percent in three months.

For skeptics, the devil is in the details. Repealing the ISA is the first step to reform and strengthen Malaysia’s democracy. The litmus test of the repeal will be the subsequent performance of critical institutions like the police and judiciary. The PM has also announced that two new laws will replace the ISA to safeguard public peace and order. The content of this legislation is unknown but will be the subject of serious debate between the moderate and conservative camps of the government. A successfully and tactfully managed reform agenda holds the possibility for a solid political future for Najib and a new era of democracy for Malaysia.

Anthea Mulakala is The Asia Foundation’s country representative in Malaysia and regional advisor for donor relations. She can be reached at amulakala@asiafound.org. The views and opinions expressed here are those of the individual author and not those of The Asia Foundation. 

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