Malaysia security law attacked as lurch toward ‘dictatorship’

Najib Razak, Malaysia's prime minister, gestures whilst speaking during a news conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Nov 23.
Najib Razak, Malaysia's prime minister, gestures whilst speaking during a news conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on Nov 23.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

KUALA LUMPUR (AFP)  -  Critics have hit out against a new Malaysian security law granting unprecedented emergency powers to the government, which they say is aimed at quashing challenges to scandal-tainted Prime Minister Najib Razak and is propelling the country toward dictatorship.

Malaysia’s parliament passed the National Security Council Bill late on Thursday (Dec 3) – the final day of the chamber’s 2015 sitting – just two days after it was tabled, spurring opposition accusations that it was quickly rammed through to thwart scrutiny and debate.

It gives a council headed by the prime minister authority to declare emergency powers to address security threats, arrest people without warrants and otherwise curb basic constitutional freedoms without judicial oversight, critics say.

The legislation has struck a nerve in Malaysia, where Mr Najib’s government already has been accused of eroding civil liberties and democratic rights as it digs in following electoral setbacks and a damaging scandal.

It comes as Mr Najib’s ruling Umno party prepares for its annual meeting next week, the first such gathering since the explosive allegation in July that he had received nearly US$700 million (S$987.4 million) in still-unexplained payments.

“The National Security Council bill is nothing but a brazen attempt at silencing all criticism of the Najib administration, particularly Najib himself,” said Mr Azmin Ali, a top opposition leader. “This law will take us only to one path, and that is the path to dictatorship.”

The opposition and other critics complain of escalating pressure by authorities – including dozens of arrests for sedition and other charges – since a 2013 election setback for the long-ruling coalition dominated by Umno.

Speculation is rising that the financial scandal could be the final straw that dumps the coalition from power after nearly six decades, and that the government is manoeuvring to prevent that by any means.

The next elections are due by 2018.

Introducing the bill earlier this week, government officials denied it was an unconstitutional “power grab”, saying it was needed to protect national security.

But Malaysian Bar Council President Steven Thiru said all fundamental civil rights with regard to “arrest, search and seizure of property can be ignored or suspended”, under the law.

“This is a grave infringement of the federal constitution,” he said.

Human Rights Watch on Thursday called it “truly frightening” and “quite clearly a tool for repression”.

Critics say Malaysia already has an ample array of tough security laws.

Mr Najib came into office in 2009 with support for Umno’s coalition that was in free-fall over its authoritarian ways, hardball politics and frequent corruption scandals.

He pledged a new era of openness, scrapping some repressive laws, but opponents say the National Security Council move constitutes two steps backwards.

Mr Najib’s financial scandal has rocked Umno, with some influential party figures calling for his resignation.

But he has purged or sidelined key critics and retains a firm grip on the party leadership. He is not expected to face significant opposition to his continued leadership during next week’s party assembly.

While denying wrongdoing, Mr Najib refuses comment on the source, purpose or ultimate fate of the funds he received. Investigations by his government appear to have stalled, and whistle blowers have been arrested or harassed.

The funding revelation followed months of allegations that huge sums were missing from a state-owned investment firm that Mr Najib launched. No clear link has been made between the two episodes.