ON 15 Sept 2011, the eve of Malaysia Day, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak announced a slew of reforms to transform Malaysia into a more open and democratic country. Almost a year later, most of the promised “reforms” have been implemented.
But has anything changed? In just the past two months, the government and its agencies have charged opposition leaders for participating in a street protest, sued Bersih 2.0 leaders for damages, and accused Singaporean embassy officials of inappropriate behaviour for observing the Bersih 3.0 rally. The government also banned a book by a Muslim woman, refused to release remaining Internal Security Act (ISA) detainees, and attempted to raid human rights organisation Suaram’s office.
Forgive me if I’m stating the obvious. Legal reforms notwithstanding, it’s not been very “open and democratic” around here recently. A quick review of all the new amendments and laws since Najib’s Malaysia Day announcement will demonstrate why.
Peaceful Assembly Act (PAA)
Najib hailed the PAA as “revolutionary” and its enactment a “giant leap” in improving current laws. “Supposedly, [the Act] chokes freedom to assemble,” Najib said in Parliament, referring to criticisms against the new law. “Is this allegation true?” he asked. “Not true at all,” he replied to his own question.
Barely six months after Najib’s statement, and shortly after the PAA came into force, the law was used to charge Opposition Leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and two others for participating in the Bersih 3.0 rally. This really is no different from the days when opposition figures were charged under the Police Act for participating in street protests.
And talking about choking the freedom to assemble, the government literally did so when the police fired a total of 967 tear gas canisters at Bersih 3.0 protesters.
How then can this legislation be construed as being revolutionary and a giant improvement?
Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA)
When Najib spoke of amending the PPPA on 31 March, he said the government respected the media’s freedom to act as a check and balance on government.
But on 28 April, police beat up working journalists during the Bersih 3.0 rally even after the media personnel identified themselves. Police were also hostile towards journalists who attempted to record instances of police brutality against protesters. In some cases, the police damaged and confiscated journalists’ equipment.
Curiously, after the attacks on the media, several Umno-owned and government-controlled media were silent or played down reports of the police beating up fellow journalists. So much then for the government respecting the media and the media acting as a check and balance on government.
And that’s not all. Under Najib’s legal reforms, the print media must still obtain permits even if it doesn’t need to renew the permits annually. This means the print media is still subject to show-cause letters from the Home Minister which can result in newspapers losing their permits and journalists or editors being suspended.
And then there’s the amendment to the Evidence Act which makes hosts of websites responsible for content published on their websites, including anonymous comments by others. Instead of the state prosecution having to identify the author, the website host is now presumed to be the author, unless he or she can prove otherwise. This is alarming because it overturns the principle of innocent until proven guilty.
According to Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Liew Vui Keong, fears about this act are “misplaced”. Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Nazri Abdul Aziz has also stressed that the amendment to the Evidence Act was needed to combat those who threaten and slander others online under a clock of anonymity.
But Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ) director Jac SM Kee has pointed out that a vast majority of cybercrime involves economic fraud and not anonymous posts that threaten and slander. Speaking at a CIJ forum on 12 June in Kuala Lumpur, Kee pointed out that there’s already a comprehensive act called the Computer Crimes Act that deals with online fraud. So, what “online threat” is the amendment to the Evidence Act really combating?
Security Offences (Special Measures) Act (Sosma)
And what about Sosma, which replaced the draconian ISA? Najib said it would usher in a “new era” for Malaysia where the government would no longer limit individuals’ freedom but respect their basic constitutional rights.
The flaws in this new law have already been widely discussed and publicised. And talking about basic constitutional rights, I’m wondering whether the government will respect those of the 45 remaining ISA detainees, several of whom have been on hunger strike. I’m also wondering whether the government will properly investigate the accusations that the ISA detainees’ constitutional rights were violated when the police allegedly tortured them during their first 60 days of detention.
Or whether the government will respect Malaysians’ basic constitutional rights by finally signing international covenants such as the Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment.
Hypocrite, inept or inadequate?
After all the hype and grand rhetoric about a new Malaysia, the reality is the same forms of repression and control continue to be exercised.
So, from where I stand, either Najib is a hypocrite for promising something he never intended to do or his administration is hopelessly inept by introducing reforms so far removed from what he apparently intended. Either way, he has failed to deliver.
Whatever Najib’s reasons for making all his promises of a better Malaysia, none of his legal reforms are bringing about the changes Malaysians were told to expect. If he intended genuine reform, it’s surely not happening. If he wanted to give concessions to civil society’s demands, no one is impressed with the cosmetic changes so far. If he wanted to win over voters who are more aware of human rights, the government’s recent antics have destroyed his credibility. If he wanted to impress the world about how progressive and moderate a Muslim country Malaysia is, that’s hardly going to happen when we’re arresting and charging Muslims for selling books that are not yet banned.
I, for one, am tired. Tired of the empty promises and hyperbole. Tired of the antics, the bullying, the fear-mongering, the lies. And really, really tired, of this government. It’s time, perhaps, for some real change.
Ding Jo-Ann almost doesn’t dare to read the news some days for fear of finding out what new ridiculousness is being perpetrated.