2011 In Review – Politics: Malaysia

The Star

IT was an interesting year on the home front as far as civil liberties are concerned. After 42 years, Malaysia finally declared that it was no longer in a state of Emergency.

On Nov 24, Parliament approved a motion to lift three emergency proclamations, two of which had been in place for over 40 years. With that, the powers granted to the police under the Emergency Ordinance (EO), including to detain suspects without warrant, was withdrawn.

The first emergency proclamation was issued by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong on May 15, 1969 following the May 13 racial riots. The other two emergency proclamations, issued on Sept 14, 1966 and Nov 8, 1977, were aimed at resolving political disputes in Sarawak and Kelantan, respectively.

Along with the revocation of the Emergency proclamations, the Government also announced the abolition of the Banishment Act 1959 and the Restricted Residence Act 1993 and said it would abolish the Internal Security Act (ISA).

However it clarified later that the new law replacing the ISA would also allow for detention without trial.

To reduce the possibility of fraud, the Election Commission has accepted the use of indelible ink for the next general election.

Meanwhile, euphoria over the repeal of the Emergency was tempered by the introduction of the Peaceful Assembly Act 2011, which was passed by Dewan Negara on Dec 20, with 39 senators voting in favour, and eight against. Under the new law, street protests, defined as “open air assembly which begins with a meeting at a specified place and consists of walking in a mass march or rally for the purpose of objecting to or advancing a particular cause or causes”, are prohibited.

The new law purportedly makes it easier to hold peaceful assemblies at “designated areas” (off-the-streets), but organisers would have to notify the police 24 hours before the event. The bill, which also allows for appeals to the Home Minister against the conditions and restrictions, was passed by the Dewan Rakyat on Nov 29 after a heated debate. Critics said it was, in fact, an even more restrictive law.

In the end, six amendments were incorporated into the bill, including shortening the notice period required to be given to the police for any assemblies to 10 days, down from 30 days. Opposition MPs staged a walkout from Parliament before voting commenced.

Amendments to the Universities and Uni­versity Colleges Act 1971 (UUCA) are now being considered following a Court of Appeal ruling on Oct 31 that Section 15(5)(a) of the act was unconstitutional. The result was handed down following an appeal by four former Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia undergraduates who faced disciplinary action for being present during the Hulu Selangor by-election on April 24 last year.

Civil society activists want more than just amendments, and are calling for the complete abolishment of the act, and along with it, the abolishment of the Educational Institutions (Discipline) Act 1976 (Act 174) and Private Higher Educational Institutions Act 1996 (Act 555). The draft amendments to the UUCA, which the Government said “will respect the constitutional rights of students aged 21 and above”, are expected to be tabled in Parliament next year.

Print publications will no longer need to renew their printing licences annually under a comprehensive review of the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA). The MCA, under its New Deal manifesto, is calling for PPPA to be abolished, a move supported by the National Union of Journalists Malaysia. Of concern to media owners is the fact that the Minister still has absolute discretion in the granting and revocation of licences, as well as in restricting and banning publications deemed detrimental to national security.

One of the most notable event this year was the Bersih protest movement in July.

The Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections, better known by its Malay acronym Bersih, mobilised tens of thousands of Malaysians to take to the streets of Kuala Lumpur on July 9 to press for electoral law reforms amidst allegations that anomalies and discrepancies in the election system heavily favoured the incumbents.

In response to popular demand, the Parliamentary Select Committee on Electoral Reform was established in August to forward several suggestions to the Election Commission (EC). Some suggestions included the use of indelible ink to cut down the possibility of fraud; doing away with the one-hour objection period; early voting for military personnel, healthcare workers and media personnel; and the display of electoral rolls every quarter for two weeks.

So far, the EC has accepted only the use of indelible ink for the next general election, while postal voting from overseas still remain the preserve of diplomatic mission staff, civil servants, and members of the armed forces.