“Najib the bold,” The Economist declared in 2011 when Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak announced that his government would repeal the Internal Security Act, a draconian law used to detain dissidents without trial. Across the Causeway, Singaporean activists heralded the move, pointing to Najib as an example for the Singapore government to follow.
No one expected then that a mere four years later Najib would introduce a piece of legislation that would even surpass the Internal Security Act in catapulting Malaysia back to the authoritarianism of the Malayan Emergency era – a period when the colonial British government waged a tough war against the communists.
The National Security Council Bill (NSC Bill) was introduced in the Dewan Rakyat during the final days of parliamentary sittings, and was passed on December 3 in a bloc vote. Its passage has sparked an outcry from Malaysian civil society amid ongoing discussion of the country’s fast-eroding civil liberties.
“The issue just came out of the blue,” Eric Paulsen, Executive Director of Lawyers for Liberty, told The Diplomat. “The first time anyone heard of it properly was when they left the bill for the members of parliament to deliberate… It just came out of the blue, there was no discussion publicly and everyone was caught by surprise.”
The bill allows the prime minister the power to designate any part of Malaysia – perhaps even the entire country – as a “security area.” Once designated a security area, members of the Malaysian security forces, from the police to the military, are allowed wide-ranging powers to detain, search, arrest, exclude and even use force on individuals, vehicles and property. The suspension of civil liberties, usually only allowed when the Agong or king declares a state of emergency under the Federal Constitution, will be able to be enforced without involving the head of state.
“Najib the bold”, it appears, might have turned into Najib the brazen.
The timing of the bill, too, has drawn suspicion. Exposés in the media about the debt-ridden 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), a strategic development company owned by the government and founded by Najib himself, have raised questions about corruption and a lack of transparency. A sum of RM2.6 billion ($700 million) in the prime minister’s personal bank account has also attracted allegations of fraud. Najib claims the amount comes from a donor in the Middle East, but he and his party are still on shaky ground. Critics have suggested that the NSC Bill is a desperate move to hold on to power no matter what.
“In England if a prime minister received RM2.6 billion into his personal accounts, he or she would have done the honorable thing and resigned,” Dr. Bridget Welsh, professor of political science at Ipek University, told The Diplomat. “This is the lesson Najib should have taken. Instead of respecting the rule of law, it would appear that Najib has constructed the law to his own purposes through the NSC.”
“Questions have been raised, especially about why now, out of the blue, at a time when UMNO is at its weakest and the threat of losing power is very real. The PM is hit with the 1MDB scandal with the lowest approval rating ever. So questions must be asked as to whether this is one way for him to hold on to power,” Paulsen said.
Civil society actors justify their skepticism by pointing to the detention of former UMNO leader Datuk Seri Khairuddin Abu Hassan and his lawyer Matthias Cheng under the 2012 Security Offences (Special Measures) Act. Both were charged with attempted sabotage of Malaysian economy simply because Khairuddin had lodged reports against the beleaguered 1MDB to foreign authorities in countries like Switzerland, France and Singapore. The two were released on bail after the High Court ruled in November that they had not committed a security offence, but activists say their case demonstrates a willingness by the government to twist the definition of “national security” to suit their own needs.
“Any power without any checks and balance and this particular act would give the PM almost absolute power to use emergency powers during peace time. … It is conceivable for him to say that Parliament is a security area, Putrajaya around his house is a security area, and of course, if there is a Bersih this whole KL central could become a security area,” Paulsen said.
In response, civil society organizations have collaborated to launch the campaign TakNakDiktator, or No Dictator. Groups involved include Amnesty Malaysia, Lawyers for Liberty, Bersih 2.0, Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM), the National Human Rights Society (HAKAM) and Institut Rakyat.
Activists feel the urgency in taking a stand against what seems like the most egregious action yet in a series of illiberal moves from the government.
“It should be noted… that this bill could easily render the earlier human rights violations as irrelevant and trivial. As such, it may be more accurate to consider the introduction of NSC Bill to be the crown jewel of Najib’s Administration human rights violations,” Sevan Doraisamy, Executive Director of SUARAM, told The Diplomat.
Killing or delaying the bill’s passage in the Senate was deemed a priority. TakNakDiktator found some opposition support on a trip to the Senate, but none of the ruling Barisan Nasional senators were willing to hear them out. Some of the senators told the local Malaysian press that they rejected civil society’s representations, as they had not yet had the time to study and consider the bill.
“I support it as a member of Barisan Nasional. I don’t understand why there are those opposing it,” Chia Song Cheng, a senator from the Malaysian Chinese Association, told the Malaysian Insider. “If the opposition was in government, they, too, would support it.”
On December 22, the Senate passed the bill with no amendments.
Still, there is division even within the ruling party’s ranks, and TakNakDiktator isn’t the only campaign speaking up against the NSC Bill.
“More and more people are speaking up, [and even] within UMNO there is division. Other parties [in the ruling coalition] don’t see eye to eye with the government on the issue. The public is seeing more, and the royalty is also speaking up. The Council of Rulers spoke up which is unusual because they don’t usually interfere,” Paulsen said.
Public forums on the NSC Bill continue to be held to keep the issue alive and get people talking. Despite the move towards authoritarianism, Paulsen has hope that the Malaysian public have become more willing to speak up.
“I think Malaysians over the last 10 years have broken the fear factor, despite the arrests and detentions. I think Malaysians are beginning to believe they must take charge of the country and bring back Malaysia to where it belongs, to the center instead of the far right and sliding into dictatorial rule,” he said.
Kirsten Han is a writer, videographer and photographer. Originally from Singapore, she has worked on documentary projects around Asia and written for publications including Waging Nonviolence, Asian Correspondent and The Huffington Post.s