Forget ISA abolition, zero-in on electoral reform

Article 149, which is meant for national security, is the mother of repressive laws, as it enables parliament to brush aside fundamental human rights guaranteed under Part 2 of the Constitution to enact laws that grant the Executive sweeping power that includes detention without trial. The human rights so affected include those enshrined under Article 5 (life and liberty), Article 9 (freedom of movement), Article 10 (freedom of speech and assembly), etc.

By Kim Quek

Prime Minister Najib Razak’s stunning announcement of his intention to repeal the abominable Internal Security Act (ISA) as well as the three archaic Proclamations of Emergency has brought much excitement to a country long struggling to rid itself of repressive rule.

Najib said in a much anticipated speech delivered on the “historic night” of Sept 15 (as he himself described) that the lifting of these repressive legislations was meant to meet the “aspiration of the people for a more open and dynamic democracy, … as to be at par with other democratic systems in the world”.

The immediate emotional impact of such a momentous announcement must be one of exhilaration and euphoria for many – we are now finally on the path to regain our long lost democracy!

But are we?


In the same breath as Najib announced the good news, he said new legislations will be enacted – an anti-terrorism act and a public order law – under the umbrella of Article 149 of the Federal Constitution to combat subversives and organized violence, so as to preserve public order and security.

But isn’t this the same umbrella Article 149 that gave birth to the detestable ISA?

Article 149, which is meant for national security, is the mother of repressive laws, as it enables parliament to brush aside fundamental human rights guaranteed under Part 2 of the Constitution to enact laws that grant the Executive sweeping power that includes detention without trial. The human rights so affected include those enshrined under Article 5 (life and liberty), Article 9 (freedom of movement), Article 10 (freedom of speech and assembly), etc.

Article 149 was written in such a way that it virtually gives the dominant party in parliament  a blank cheque to write whatever autocratic law whenever it desires, as the grounds upon which such law can be enacted encompass a wide range of vague justifications – grounds such as any actual or threatened action that may cause citizens to fear organized violence, or to excite disaffection against government, or to promote ill-will among races, or prejudice the functioning of public service or supply, etc.  

With such licence to create autocratic legislations, can Umno resist the temptation to fashion the new anti-terrorist laws after its repressive impulse for self-preservation? Considering Umno’s notorious record of contempt for the sanctity of law, as reflected in its cavalier attitude in amending the Constitution for political expediency – having made more than 600 amendments to the Constitution in the short period of the country’s independence – the answer must be an emphatic no.


Even in the unlikely event of Umno managing exceptionally to enact the replacement security laws in accord with the democratic spirit of our Constitution on this occasion, there is still the huge question of whether Umno is capable of implementing these laws with fairness and equity.

In this respect, we recall that when the ISA was enacted in 1960, our first prime minister Tunku Abdul Rahman gave the solemn pledge in parliament that the vast power of ISA would only be used to curb the communist insurgency, and would never be used to suppress political opposition. 

But we all know that the ISA detention center at Kamunting has played host to such distinguished “guests” (detainees) as Anwar Ibrahim, Lim Kit Siang, Mat Sabu, Karpal Singh, Lim Guan Eng (among thousands of others). Does anyone in his right mind believe that any of them could have been a communist or a subversive?

It is an undeniable fact that the history of ISA is a mirror of the relentless abuse of draconian power by the Umno led regime to oppress opponents and silence critics. Instead of using the ISA as a weapon to combat the communists as pledged, ISA has been turned into Umno’s potent instrument to keep its hegemony intact all these decades.

Umno is now facing unprecedented challenge to its political survival. Are we to believe that it will give up this potent weapon at this most vulnerable moment of its existence?

What Najib is effectively tellings us is that the anti-communist law (ISA) will now be replaced by anti-terrorist law. 

Since both laws derive from the same root (Article 149), have the same power of preventive detention, exercised by the same political masters, and implemented by the same institutions (police, attorney general and judiciary), which now enjoy even less public confidence than in the past, why should one believe that history will not repeat itself? 

If an anti-communist law has been persistently and unhesitatingly abused to blunt opposition challenges in the past, why should we believe that the new anti-terrorist law will not be similarly abused now that Umno is struggling desperately for its political survival?


Even if Najib is serious about these changes this time, as he may have been persuaded to adopt this course as the best way to recoup the middle ground support he lost in the recent Bersih rally debacle, obstacles ahead abound.

For a start, Najib appears to have acted in isolation, as two key players seem to have been left out of the loop. Neither his deputy Muhyiddin Yassin nor Home Minister Hishamuddin Hussein – and by extension, the cabinet – seem to have participated in the decision-making process.

The hardliner Home Minister, who is responsible for implementing the security laws, expressed ignorance, when reporters asked him about rumours of a pending repeal of ISA only two days before Najib’s speech.

While Muhyiddin, speaking at a Merdeka-Raya event in Nibong Tebal, Penang on Sept 17, said that Najib’s announcement was “unexpected and radical”, but he quickly added that Najib’s speech was “bold and courageous”. He went on to praise Najib for moving with the time and assured the people that the changes were meant for the good of the people.

Such expressions of “surprise” and “praise”, coming after keeping mum for two days, give a lot of food for thought.

A reasonable interpretation is that the staunchly conservative and increasingly more powerful deputy leader of Umno cum deputy prime minister was not happy with such a “radical” move, but pragmatism dictates that he must not show it.  Instead, he must have decided over the two days of contemplation to turn an apparently unhappy  event into advantage by riding on this new wave of “democratic reform” to reap maximum support at home and abroad, without the slightest intention to let go of Umno’s repressive grip. After all, there is still ample opportunity to keep Umno’s draconian power intact during the legislative as well as the implementation stage.

Indeed that seems to be the case, as unmistakably signaled by Muhyiddin when he pointed out that the new security laws will prioritize security over human rights, when answering query whether there would be true reforms with the introduction of two new security laws.

Without the prior consultation and support of Umno’s top guns for genuine reforms, and with Najib’s miserable record of flip-flops whenever opposed by conservatives, it is almost a foregone conclusion that there will not be true reforms whether there is or isn’t repeal of current repressive legislation.


The real danger to true reformists lies in the false propaganda that can be generated from this new development, considering the immense power of BN’s propaganda machinery, which encompasses all newspapers and all TV channels. 

Among the casualties of such false propaganda would be the Bersih 2.0 movement for electoral reform, as euphoria so created may deflate the immense momentum generated by the recent Bersih rally.  It may even cripple Bersih’s capacity to rally another mass demonstration, if substantial section of the middle ground is doped into cherishing such false hope of democratization.

And Bersih rally 3 looks inevitable, in the light of alarming increase of discovery of frauds in the electoral roll, against the back drop of a reluctant BN to institute real reform. 

This new menace of apparently systemic infestation of phantom voters in the electoral roll, unless effectively checked now, can snowball into something like ‘Project M’ (M stands for Mahathir) which had singularly propelled Umno to political dominance in Sabah in the Nineties.

We are therefore landed in the dire state of having to face new trouble spots while resolution of old issues is not in sight yet.

It is therefore imperative that we redouble our effort to press for swift and effective measures to rectify the current electoral flaws, and not allow ourselves to be unnecessarily distracted by Najib’s new initiative over democratization.

Top priority must always be electoral reform, as it holds the key to a fair chance of winning the right to administer the country.  Without the mandate to rule, all talks of reforms will be in vain.