Malaysia’s parliament swiftly approved the proposed National Security Council Bill despite the appeal of the opposition to conduct more debates and consultations about the measure.
The bill, which was just introduced on December 1, was immediately tabled for deliberation despite the admission of the ruling party that there was no internal threat or terror alert in the country.
Even if there is a need to establish the legal framework for the safeguarding of the country’s security, opponents contend that Malaysia already has several existing laws that can be used by authorities such as the Internal Security Act, Security Offenses (Special Measures) Act of 2012 and the Prevention of Terrorism Act which was passed early this year.
The 33-page NSC bill itself proposes the establishment of a National Security Council headed by the prime minister. This body, composed of eight high ranking Cabinet members and military officers, will be given the power to “formulate policies and strategic measures on national security, including sovereignty, territorial integrity, defense, sociopolitical stability, economic stability, strategic resources, national unity and other interests relating to national security.”
There is no clear definition of what constitutes national security, which has significant implications for how the bill is enforced. For instance, since the document mentions ‘socio-political stability’, does it mean the massive anti-government Bersih rally can be considered a threat to national security?
The bill allows the prime minister to declare any area in the country as part of a so-called ‘security area’. A director of operations in the security area will be appointed who can issue a curfew order. In addition, the director of operations has “the power to do all things necessary or expedient for or in connection with the performance of his duties in the security area.”
Some of the specified powers of the director include the authority to order warrant-less arrests, block any vehicle and persons in the security area from accessing roads and waterways, and seize property or destroy assets believed to be in the interest of national security. The National Security Council can also appoint an unlimited number of officers to implement the law in the security area.
Yet the bill raises issues of accountability since those implementing the law are immune from prosecution.
“No prosecution for an offence under this Act shall be instituted except by, or with the written consent, of the public prosecutor,” the bill states.
Steven Thiru, president of the Malaysian Bar, called the bill “an insidious piece of legislation that confers and concentrates vast executive powers in a newly created statutory body called the National Security Council.” He added that the bill grants the prime minister with emergency powers which were already repealed by the parliament in 2011.
According to the Lawyers for Liberty group, the bill is “extremely vague, arbitrary and wide and further obliges secrecy – a surefire recipe for abuse of power and human rights. Far from establishing matters concerning national security, the bill is more akin to establishing a dictatorship rule.”
Human rights group Suara Rakyat asserted that “the only reason why the Government of Malaysia wish to implement this legislation is to provide its leaders with unparalleled power to control the country and silence all form of dissent with violence and threat of violence.”
Veteran lawmaker Lim Kit Siang questioned the rush to approve the measure.
“It is an insult to the intelligence of Pakatan Harapan Members of Parliament and discerning members of the public to expect them to behave like unthinking and obedient robots or digits to give blank cheque support to whatever is decided by the Cabinet,” he wrote on his blog.
Notably, criticisms of the law do not question the right of the Malaysian government to implement measures for the protection of its citizens. Rather, the issue is why it needs the new bill at all: critics contend that the country has more than enough ‘draconian’ laws to deter criminal or terrorist acts.
If it is indeed true that the National Security Council Bill is unnecessary, then what is its purpose other than to give vast and broad powers to law enforcers and the prime minister? Irrespective of how one answers that question, the government also clearly missed the opportunity to explain its position when it quickly moved to approve the measure instead of consulting stakeholders about the proposed law.