Malaysia’s new government appeared to be abandoning its electoral campaign pledge to repeal provisions of controversial national security laws that Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad had earlier described as “tyrannical.”
During the campaign for the May general election, the then opposition Pakatan Harapan alliance led by Mahathir released a platform vowing to “abolish draconian provisions” of the Security Offenses (Special Measures) Act, or SOSMA, a law that was introduced six years ago to fight terror threats, and the Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA).
Pakatan also promised to revoke the Prevention of Crime Act, or POCA, which was enacted in 1959.
But on Sunday, Home Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said a special committee that was created by Mahathir’s government to study the legal provisions of those laws had decided that such legislation was necessary to safeguard the country from organized crime and terror threats.
“There are those who threaten the safety of the nation by joining terror groups or they could be part of the triad,” Muhyiddin said, using the common term for criminal syndicates. “If there is no law such as SOSMA, they can do whatever they want and will lead to a bad effect for the people and the country.”
He said SOSMA, POTA and POCA should be defended, although some amendments might be needed later.
Muhyiddin made the statement during the general assembly of the Bersatu party in the administrative capital Putrajaya.
Under SOSMA, a suspect can be detained up to 28 days for investigation and that person can be denied access to an attorney for up to 48 hours.
“Some of these laws were inherited from the British colonial era without amendment to improve weaknesses. There are also tyrannical laws that were enacted by UMNO and Barisan Nasional,” PH said in its campaign platform.
UMNO, the United Malays National Organization, had been Malaysia’s dominant political force since the country gained independence on Aug. 31, 1957. Barisan Nasional, on the other hand, was the ruling coalition that was driven from power when it lost the May 9 general election to Pakatan.
Muhyiddin, who is also Bersatu’s president, made the statement in response to suggestions by party delegates that the government bring back the draconian Internal Security Act (ISA), which was abolished in 2012 by then Prime Minister Najib Razak.
“If the existing legislations are not defended, some groups who think that they are free to do anything that could jeopardize the nation by becoming gangsters or terrorists could crop up,” the state-run news agency Bernama also quoted Muhyiddin as saying, “As such, we will apply the existing laws which will be enforced fully by the police and other enforcement agencies.”
ISA would not be revived under Mahathir’s leadership, Muhyiddin said.
Former detainee rejects government’s decision
Maria Chin Abdullah, a former SOSMA detainee, criticized the government’s decision to retain the special security laws.
“Total abolishment is needed, period. Not amendments. You cannot have a system that detains a person without trial,” she told BenarNews on Monday. “That is injustice.”
Maria was detained on Nov. 18, 2016 on charges of “engaging in activities detrimental to parliamentary democracy” after police raided the offices of election watchdog Bersih 2.0. Authorities alleged that they had found documents that could be considered as an offence under the national security laws.
She was freed 10 days later after massive public protests.
Maria also said that police should efficiently use the 14 days of maximum remand allowed by current laws, instead of detaining suspects for 28 days without trial, as allowed under SOSMA.
“To detain a man for 28 days (without trial) without knowing if he is guilty or not is injustice. Moreover, the person is denied to have excess to lawyers and to see their family,” she said.
“There are many ways to curb terrorism and crime. To use a law that abuse one's right is not helping justice but it is an act of injustice,” she added.
NGOs also slammed the home minister’s announcement.
“In the Pakatan Harapan’s manifesto … they specifically said that they as government will repeal the SOSMA and POTA act,” Mahathir Abdul Rahman, spokesman of Desak Sampai Bubar, or Pressure Until Repeal, a group of families of people detained under SOSMA, told BenarNews.
He said his group, which would be directly impacted by the government’s decision, was never consulted.
“We want real justice, we want a government who listens to the public,” he said.
Dr M: ‘People will be protected by fair laws’
On July 27, more than two months after he returned to power in a stunning triumph, Mahathir promised that the public would be protected from cruel and draconian laws, as he chastised his predecessor, Najib, for introducing SOSMA in 2012.
“Najib’s law allows a person to be arrested and not to be taken to court, and if that person died, there will be neither inquiry nor action taken against those who killed him,” Mahathir, 93, said.
“The people will be protected by fair laws so that if they committed any offense, they will be judged by the court and the court will determine whether or not the person is guilty,” he said.
But in response to violence and vandalism that took place at a Hindu temple in Subang Jaya last month, Mahathir’s government also lifted a moratorium on laws used to repress dissent, including the Sedition Act of 1948, which was also on top of the list that Pakatan had pledged to revoke.
Human Rights Watch described that move as “a big step backward on the road to reform.”
“The government that so recently took office promising a commitment to human rights should not return to the draconian laws used by the previous Malaysian administration to stifle dissent,” Phil Robertson, a deputy Asia director for HRW, said in a statement.