By Joachim Francis Xavier
In the past five months, Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak has made a slew of dramatic civil liberties reforms. The latest is the tabling of a Peaceful Assembly bill on November 29, aimed at providing Malaysians with more room for public dissent.
However, while prima facie the announcement of the bill was welcomed, upon closer scrutiny of its provisions it was quickly apparent that the bill was not all that it was made out to be.
After coming to power in April 2009, Najib announced his Government Transformation Plan (GTP), which among a plethora of promised changes included long-awaited civil liberty reforms. Sensing that the average Malaysian today is far better informed of his rights and demands respect, Najib set out to satisfy their demands by unleashing civil liberty reforms that appeared to astonish many.
This year he repealed the Banishment Act of 1959, Restricted Residence Act of 1993 and the supposedly “crime-busting” Emergency (Prevention of Crime and Public Order) Ordinance.
Furthermore, he pledged to reform the draconian University and University Colleges Act of 1971, employed to curtail students’ involvement in politics, and to review the Printing Presses and Publications Act of 1984, infamous for severely curtailing media freedom.
But the mother of all promised reforms is Najib’s shock pledge in September to repeal what is arguably the monster of anti-civil liberties laws, the Internal Security Act (ISA) of 1960 which over the years has been used to detain people without trial.
These announcements have been met with a mix of jubilation, cautious acceptance, skepticism cynicism.
Last month Najib revealed the much anticipated Peaceful Assembly Bill.
Currently, the Police Act of 1967 provides law enforcement with powers to regulate assemblies, meetings and processions, and this is done primarily by a permit requirement – a permit that is illusive especially when the gathering is seen as anti-government. Under the new bill, this permit requirement would be buried once and for all. This is a major concession and most welcomed. But organizers would now have to inform the police of their assembly plans 30 days in advance.
The bill also contains a list of restrictions, among them a total ban on “street protest”, and a long list of locations around which protestors are not allowed to gather within 50 meters, including petrol stations, airports, public transport terminals, bridges, schools and places of worship. This onerous restriction, if applied to assemblies and rallies organized in the country in the last few years, would have effectively outlawed all of them, including one recently in Kuala Lumpur when thousands took to the streets to demand electoral reforms.
The bill also contains a provision that prohibits anyone below the age of 21 from organizing public assemblies and those younger than 15 from participating in them. This will certainly not go down well with college students today who would not hesitate to fight for greater freedoms.
A persistent feature of the Police Act that is also conspicuous in the new law is the conferred role of the police as “judge and jury” in matters pertaining to freedom of assembly, all in the name of maintaining public order. Considering that several surveys have bestowed on the police force the reputation of being the least trustworthy agency in the country, the dearth of credibility is gaping and does nothing to inspire confidence that the police are able to make justifiable decisions.
Since the announcement of the bill, Najib has crossed swords with the opposition and the public. Cyberspace has been abuzz with chatter on how the bill insults their intelligence. The Bar Council of Malaysia in defiance to existing laws staged a street protest in Kuala Lumpur on November 29.
In the course of my involvement in the Church, I have often organized and participated in assemblies, street protests and processions often to highlight some injustice or issue pertinent to the advancement of civil liberties. Though all of these events for the most part proceeded peacefully, the heavy police presence did not make us feel safe but instead made us feel acutely threatened. They were not there to provide participants with protection or to maintain public order, but were hell-bent on shutting down the event as soon as possible.
It became normal for organizers to assign people to “negotiate” with the police and try and stall them for as long as possible from tearing down our placards or caging up the more vocally inclined participants. In one anti-ISA protest I served as one such negotiator, and I will never forget having to reason with men who would not go beyond saying “No!” That protest ended peacefully after five minutes.
Thus I welcomed the prime minister’s decision to reform the Police Act, only to be disappointed again like the many Malaysians yearning for a better Malaysia.
It is likely that Najib did not anticipate the uproar the bill has generated among the Malaysian public. Since coming to power, he has seduced many Malaysians with long-awaited reforms, allowing each to sink in before announcing the next.
On November 29, the government passed the bill with six amendments mostly related to “time” clauses. The most significant was that organizers would only need to give police 10 days notice before an assembly instead of 30 days. This is still behind the assembly laws of Myanmar, which imposes a five-day notification period. The bill is now set to go through the Senate and receive royal assent in the next few days.
While Najib may be poised to hoist the trophy in parliament this round, the real question is whether he will win the battle outside parliament. It would be a coup of sorts if he unravels all that he has achieved in the preceding months and ends up losing parliament simply because Malaysians do not want a peaceful assembly bill that does not provide a reasonable opportunity to peacefully assemble.
Joachim Francis Xavier is a legally trained social activist who has worked for the Penang Catholic diocese for over 10 years. He now serves as chairperson of the Malaysian Catholic Bishops’ Episcopal Commission for the Pastoral Care of Migrants and Itinerants