KUALA LUMPUR • Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak will get sweeping security powers on Monday amid planned protests calling for his resignation over US allegations that millions of dollars from a state fund wound up in his personal bank account.
The new National Security Council (NSC) Act, which comes into force on Monday, allows Datuk Seri Najib to designate any area as a "security area", where he can deploy forces to search any individual, vehicle or premises without a warrant. Officials may also declare an area a "security area" and disallow protests there.
The powers also allow investigators to dispense with formal inquests into killings by the police or armed forces in those areas.
The new powers worry critics as tensions flared anew following last week's revelation by the United States Justice Department that it planned to seize US$1 billion (S$1.36 billion) in assets allegedly siphoned from the 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB) fund that Mr Najib oversaw. His critics are planning a series of protests and are concerned that the new powers will be used against them.
Mr Najib's ruling coalition promoted the law as a means to counter threats to security in the country, which has long dealt with a fringe element of radical Islamists. But some argue that the law's expansive powers threaten human rights and democracy, and could now be used to silence 1MDB critics.
"The concern among (members of) civil society and others is that the NSC can be used against anything that the government is unhappy with," said Mr Wan Saiful Wan Jan, chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs, adding that it could extend to public rallies.
"It does give the Prime Minister a huge amount of power to declare emergency zones," he added.
The law was passed on the last day of the legislation session in December, surprising the opposition, as Mr Najib came under mounting criticism over the multi-billion dollar scandal.
The law was enacted without the customary royal assent of the Malaysian king, who had asked for some changes.
The US civil lawsuits do not name Mr Najib, but refer to a high-ranking government official who received over US$700 million of the misappropriated funds.
The Premier, who has denied any wrongdoing, has said that Malaysia will cooperate in international investigations of the 1MDB case.
The NSC is coming into force amid growing complaints about assaults on civil liberties in Malaysia.
Mr Najib has in recent months used the colonial-era Sedition Act and other draconian laws to arrest government critics, imprison opposition leaders and stifle free speech by suspending media groups and blogs.
"The likelihood of the NSC being utilised in order to crack down on any act of civil movement is likely to steadily increase as manoeuvring space for the Prime Minister decreases," said executive director Sevan Doraisamy of human rights group Suaram.
Malaysia's opposition alliance is planning to hold an anti-Najib rally on Saturday.
Pro-democracy group Bersih, whose street protests last year drew more than 100,000 people, is also planning a separate rally, but has not set a date.