NB: This article was originally published in my column on The Malaysian Insider.
“If this law is passed, it will be a black day in Malaysia.”
Standing two rows in front of me, N Surendran, the Member for Padang Serai, held the floor defiantly. I nodded my head solemnly. At that point, a feeling of frustration had overcome me. Not only because such a critical bill was being bulldozed through without proper consultation and engagement, despite its huge ramifications on civil liberties and human rights, but also because, seated on the opposition benches, there was very little we could do to either stop or delay it.
I glanced at the clock behind the speaker. By the end of the day, two previously repealed draconian laws would return to haunt Malaysia. How did we come to this?
From transformation to regression
Dato’ Sri Najib Razak’s reign as prime minister began with all the trappings of a grand reformer. In an attempt to unite a divided nation, he proffered the pseudo-national slogan of “1Malaysia,” defined by his official website as “a belief in the importance of national unity irrespective of race or religious belief.”
Najib also articulated a fresh economic agenda, dubbed the New Economic Model (NEM), in which he proposed a clear departure from the racially charged New Economic Policy (NEP) of the last four decades. In this paradigm shift, state monopolistic practices and race-based discrimination was set to be replaced by market liberalisation and needs-based affirmative action in favour of the poor.
Underpinning both the 1Malaysia concept as well as the NEM was an important keyword: “transformation”. This keyword has since manifested into a host of government initiatives such as the Government Transformation Programme (GTP) and the Economic Transformation Programme (ETP), through which Najib’s transformative reforms were converted into actionable projects and policies.
Najib’s euphoria, unfortunately, was not to last. Barely three years on, transformation has descended into regression. Today, 1Malaysia remains nothing more than a brand for subsidised sundry shops, mobile clinics, affordable housing schemes, budget menus and even textile retailers, while the NEM has given way to a rehashed NEP in the form of the recently announced Bumiputera Economic Empowerment Agenda (BEEA).
What is most tragic, however, is the unabashed about-turn by the Najib Administration over laws allowing for detention without trial.
In 2011, Najib led a hyperbolic charge to dismantle two existing legislations that provided for detention without due judicial process, i.e. the Emergency (Public Order and Crime Prevention) Ordinance (EO) and the notorious Internal Security Act (ISA). This represented a giant leap forward towards greater civil liberties and respect for human rights in Malaysia, considering the fact that both laws have been much abused over the years as a tool of political intimidation, often against legitimate political opponents.
Announced via live telecast to a nationwide audience and proudly reiterated in the international fora, Najib was adamant in presenting himself as a champion of liberal reforms. In an interview with the BBC, he even promised that having “removed the Internal Security Act and the Emergency Ordinance… detention without trial is history in Malaysia.”
Unfortunately, the Prime Minister’s notion of history has proven to be rather myopic. In the last week, Malaysians have witnessed the official end of Najib’s reform agenda, as the Government ushered in the return of the EO and the ISA through amendments made to the Prevention of Crime Act (PCA). This law may carry a different name, but every controversial provision has been retained – indefinite detention without trial, presumption of guilt, and prohibition of legal recourse, with the only significant difference being the replacement of the arbitrary powers of the Home Minister with an equally arbitrary three-man “Prevention of Crime Board.”
A campaign of justification
What is most galling about the entire exercise is that the law had been passed without much public resistance. Besides the usual opposition-led protests, some comments by political and social activists, as well as a strongly worded joint statement by the Bar Council, the Sabah Law Association and the Advocates Association of Sarawak, there was no sustained hue and cry following the tabling of the bill (though there now appears to be growing remonstration after the fact).
This was accomplished largely due to a cleverly planned campaign of justification. While, less than a year ago, the Government could not stop singing praises about its own successes in combatting crime through its GTP initiatives, the official tone took a divergent turn following unfavourable results in the 13th General Election, which hawks within the ruling party blamed on the Government’s increasingly liberal stand.
Shortly after the election, the media began to report a flurry of criminal activities, including a worrying spate of organised violence involving firearms. At one point, during the festive season mid-year, gun murders became a daily affair. Although most of the victims were themselves criminally linked, there was no doubt that the public had been persuaded that violent crime had spiralled out of control.
That was when the Home Minister seized upon the opportunity to suggest that the sudden surge in crime was due to the repeal of the EO and the ISA, as it effectively meant that thousands of ex-detainees had been set loose to roam around the country, presumably causing havoc.
This scenario, which soon became the police’s official line, appeared to be believable. In truth, however, there was no empirical evidence to suggest the correlation, a fact admitted to by the Attorney-General himself.
Instead, crime statistics from the Home Ministry revealed that incidences of armed gang robberies and armed robberies declined significantly (by 65 per cent compared to the year before) in 2012, which is the year immediately subsequent to the abolishment of the EO and ISA in December 2011.
Nevertheless, with public sentiment aroused, the Government launched a campaign dubbed “Operation Cantas Khas”, which saw nearly 12,000 criminals arrested and over 400 weapons confiscated over a one-month period.
Thus, having successfully constructed a climate of fear, the PCA amendments were introduced as the next logical step in the war against crime. Never mind that the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act already provided for limited detention without trial with judicial review in cases involving national security, or the fact that there was never any proof linking ex-EO or ISA detainees to the sudden spate of violent crime, or that structural inefficiencies had been singled out by many including the 2005 Royal Commission of Inquiry report for police failures in combatting crime. The PCA, it was suggested, was the tool that would solve the intractable crisis of crime in our country.
As a result, the draconian provisions of the EO and the ISA are now available once again in the guise of the PCA. While the Government has promised that it will not be used against political opponents, history has proven otherwise, as many members of the opposition benches would readily testify.
If 1Malaysia and the NEM provided the basis of Najib’s first term in power, then the BEEA and the PCA should give us a clear indication of what to expect in the years to come.
Thus, Surendran’s proclamation in Parliament was only half-right. The passing of the bill at 1.00am on 3 October 2013 did not merely signal a black day, but in fact the beginning of black times ahead for the nation.