A decision by Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak to repeal controversial laws that significantly curtail civil liberties has been greeted with both relief and cynicism among members of the public.
Under Najib’s proposals, the widely detested Emergency Ordinance and the Internal Security Act (ISA) will be abolished. The 51-year-old law was initially designed to combat a communist insurgency and, more recently, to detain terrorism suspects. However, thousands of people have been detained under the act, whose mandate critics say has stretched to include those simply critical of the government.
Najib’s administration will also amend publishing laws that require newspapers and other media outlets to seek a license that must be renewed annually. Critics argue the renewal requirement has stifled the media's independence in Malaysia, although such restrictions have given rise to a thriving online publishing industry.
News services like Free Malaysia Today and Malaysiakini enjoy a status within the public imagination that the government-friendly mainstream newspapers have always coveted but never occupied. Indeed, these websites also threaten hundreds of provincial newspapers owned by businessmen with close links to politicians and their political parties, papers that have never been shy of promoting their leader of choice.
That scenario is unlikely to change. The need for an annual renewal will be ditched, but a government licensing provision for newspapers will be retained so the authorities still have room to manoeuvre when it comes to ‘annoying’ journalists who act with an independent mind and opt for a career on local papers.
Still, despite the plans, the government – and particularly the ruling United Malays National Organization (UMNO) – has a long way to go before convincing a sceptical electorate that such reforms are genuine. Their tough response to the July 9 pro-electoral reform Bersih rallies, for example, was widely seen as mean as it was memorable.
Najib also bowed to public pressure in announcing his government will review an act that requires police permission to stage public gatherings. This comes after the July rallies in Kuala Lumpur were declared illegal and turned violent amid police beatings and the tear gassing of protesters.
But as the president of the Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections Ambiga Sreenevasan noted, the review was disappointing ‘because what they have said is that they will protect freedom of assembly but they will not allow street demonstrations.’
‘Now street demonstration to me is really fundamental when you talk about freedom of assembly – a peaceful street demonstration. So in my view they didn’t do anything for freedom of assembly.’
The announcements are unlikely to be passed into law until next year and speculation persists that Najib will call an early election for this November or in the first quarter of 2012. An election must be held by mid-2013.
The July rallies were a culmination of years of frustration, as many believe the electoral system is biased towards the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition and its lead party, UMNO. Laws like ISA and those governing press freedom and freedom of assembly were seen as symptomatic of that wider problem.
Malaysia has witnessed rising racial tensions and increased uncertainty over its economic outlook since the 2008 election, when UMNO was returned with a much reduced majority. It was the worst performance since independence and in the political blood-letting that followed Najib ousted his predecessor and took the top job. He now has to win back, as promised, the lost ground.
How far the repeal of these laws will go in terms of reining in an increasingly disaffected vote and a youth that sees itself as marginalized is yet to be seen. Regardless, voters will be able to detect if the reforms are genuine, even if they are delivered after the next election.
If they aren’t, UMNO could face an electoral drubbing further down the track and the real prospect that UMNO might not be in government anymore.