KL faces pressure to abolish the ISA

(The Straits Times) KUALA LUMPUR, May 5 – As the government prepares to review the Internal Security Act (ISA), it is facing an increasing clamour for wide-ranging changes, including abolition of the law.

The pressure is coming from within the Barisan Nasional as well as civil liberties groups, as the government seeks to fulfil its pledge of revamping one of its most controversial and hated laws.

The promised review will get under way this week when the Law Reform Committee holds its first meeting tomorrow, Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Liew Vui Keong said.

He was quoted in The Star yesterday as saying the committee will look into law reforms, including the ISA, which allows for preventive detention of those deemed to be a threat to national security.

“The ISA is a law that is close to the hearts of many and we will work together with the Home Ministry to amend the relevant parts,” he said.

Expectations run high. This is, in part, due to Prime Minister Najib Razak’s actions recently to introduce wide-ranging reforms in different areas.

His administration had abolished the 30 per cent bumiputera quota for 27 sub-sectors in the service sector, liberalised some areas of the financial sector and made it a policy to stop forced conversion of children to Islam.

When he became Prime Minister a month ago, he also released 13 ISA detainees, including two from the Hindu Rights Action Force. The group had led thousands of Indians onto the streets two years ago to demand assistance for the community.

Ragunath Kesavan, president of the Malaysian Bar which groups the country’s 13,000 lawyers, said it was positive that the government has realised the public sentiment towards the ISA.

“There is gradual acceptance that the powers under the ISA are too wide, and some kind of tacit admission that it has been abused,” he told The Straits Times.

The Bar wants preventive detention to be banned, but he acknowledged that this is unlikely.

Nevertheless, the government will be expected to introduce substantive reforms to remove much of the scope for abuse. It cannot be a “rebranding exercise”, said the Malaysian Chinese Association women’s chief Chew Mei Fun.

At the minimum, it will be expected to limit the scope of the ISA and to permit substantive judicial review of detentions. At present, the ISA’s scope of national security cuts a wide swathe, and there is only very limited judicial review.

“It started as a law against communists in the 1960s, but it was used against civil activists and religious extremists. The categories expanded under the label of national security,” said Ragunath of the Bar Council.

The Abolish ISA Movement, a civil liberties organisation, estimates that there are 30 detainees held for reasons from suspected religious and racial militarism to forging official documents.

Last year, the use of the law to swoop down on a blogger, a reporter and an opposition politician provoked an outcry, and prompted the resignation of the de facto law minister Zaid Ibrahim.

No deadline has been set for the completion of the review.