Malaysia's Parliament mulls declaring state of emergency over Pasir Gudang spill

Members of the fire and rescue department prepare for inspecting chemical contaminants near the Taman Pasir Putih Pasir Gudang Community Hall. PHOTO: BERNAMA
Medical personnel sending a student who was affected by toxic fumes in Pasir Gudang to hospital on March 13, 2019. PHOTO: DPA

KUALA LUMPUR (THE STAR/ASIA NEWS NETWORK, AFP) - The Malaysian Parliament is set to debate on Thursday (March 14) an emergency motion for the federal government to declare a state of emergency over the chemical dumping incident in Johor.

A lorry is believed to have dumped the waste in Johor's Pasir Gudang industrial town last week, sending hazardous fumes across a wide area and causing those affected to display symptoms of poisoning such as nausea and vomiting.

More than 900 people, many of them school pupils, have received medical treatment after inhaling the fumes, with over 160 admitted to hospital, the Malay Mail reported, citing the Health Ministry. All 111 schools in the district were ordered to close by the Education Ministry on Wednesday.

Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad is expected to visit Pasir Gudang later on Thursday.

Parliament Speaker Mohamad Ariff Md Yusof said the motion to declare a state of emergency, which was tabled by Pasir Gudang MP Hassan Abdul Karim, will be debated at 4.30pm.

"As the Speaker, I am satisfied that the motion meets with all of the requirements - that it is a specific matter, of public interest, and urgent," said Datuk Mohamad Arif.

Earlier, lawmakers from both sides of the political divide called for Parliament to debate the motion to declare an emergency over the incident.

It was unclear what type of poisonous gas had been emitted near Pasir Gudang. Education Minister Maszlee Malik initially ordered the closure of 43 schools in the area on Wednesday, but later announced that figure had more than doubled.

"The Ministry of Education has decided to close all 111 schools in the Pasir Gudang area immediately," he said in a statement.

"The Education Ministry is requesting that all parties take precautions."

Three men were arrested earlier this week over the toxic waste dumping. One is expected to be charged in court soon and could face up to five years in jail if found guilty of breaking environmental protection laws.

Disaster Emergency

Speaking to Malay Mail, civil liberties lawyer Syahredzan Johan explained that it would likely be a "disaster emergency" rather than a Proclamation of Emergency as stipulated in Article 150 of the Federal Constitution that would result in a curfew.

"This is a different sort of emergency than the one provided for under the Constitution. It is a 'disaster emergency' where the State is not given extra powers or authority," said Syahredzan, who is also political secretary to Iskandar Puteri MP Lim Kit Siang.

Syahredzan said a "disaster emergency" can be declared under National Security Council's Directive No. 20 to coordinate federal agencies' handling of the situation on the ground.

The directive - which handles the policy and mechanism of national disaster management and relief - outlines the role of the government agencies, lawmakers, private parties and volunteering bodies that are present throughout the disaster, he said.

He added that in the case of a disaster emergency, these measures would be taken to ensure resources can be directed efficiently and effectively, so the disaster can be swiftly resolved.

"This emergency does not mean there will be curfews and so on. The daily lives of Johor and Pasir Gudang folks will not be affected, if they're not in the impacted areas," he explained in a separate Facebook post.

However, several lawyers pointed out that Putrajaya could still invoke Article 150 of the Federal Constitution as very serious environmental contamination in a large area is tantamount to a "grave emergency".

Article 150 states that: "If the Yang di-Pertuan Agong is satisfied that a grave emergency exists whereby the security, or the economic life, or public order in the Federation or any part thereof is threatened, he may issue a proclamation of emergency making therein a declaration to that effect."

"Such proclamation of emergency must also be tabled in Parliament. Hence, it is often only in the most serious of circumstances with immediate threat to national security or order which is worth an emergency," said lawyer Lim Wei Jiet.

Another lawyer, Surendra Ananth, also noted that the requirements for a "grave emergency" are to be construed broadly and can include the incident in Pasir Gudang.

"The implications if this is done in the current scenario are that the authority of the Federal Government will extend to any matter within the power of the Johor State Government," Surendran explained.

Syahredzan said the decision to declare a "disaster emergency" lies with Putrajaya, and it does not need to do so if the situation is still under control.

"It all depends on the government's response towards the issue. If it can be handled, there is no need to declare a 'disaster emergency'," said Syahredzan in his post.

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