A bleak Human Rights Day for Malaysia, again

On this Human Rights Day on 10th December which commemorates the day, the United Nations General Assembly adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Malaysia once again has very little to celebrate.

The nation’s human rights status in 2015 is nothing short of deplorable, probably the worst since the height of Mahathir’s authoritarianism in 1987-1988 which saw, among others, Operation Lalang and the sacking of the Supreme Court.

Prime Minister Najib Razak came to power in 2009 promising sweeping human rights reforms and for a short while, he held on to his promise with the repeal of the Internal Security Act (ISA) and three emergency proclamations. However, any further optimism quickly subsided into horror as his administration swiftly replaced these outdated laws with similar and in some instances, worse laws that fall far short of international standards.

Among the spate of new laws at the government’s disposal are the Prevention of Terrorism Act 2015 (POTA), the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012 (SOSMA), the Prevention of Crime Act 1959 (with substantial amendments in 2014) and the 2012 amendments to the Penal Code that added numerous vague and exaggerated offences as offences against the state including ‘activities detrimental to parliamentary democracy’. Other illiberal and widely used laws include the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012 and the Sedition Act 1948 which was amended in April with even more oppressive provisions.

December has been the worst month yet, with the introduction of the National Security Council Bill (NSC Bill) which, if passed, constitutes the most serious assault on the nation’s democracy, fundamental liberties and rule of law. It will essentially allow the Prime Minister to usurp the powers of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong under Article 150 of the Federal Constitution to proclaim emergency during peace time (even though ‘emergency’ is not mentioned in the Bill).

The NSC Bill was done surreptitiously, without any basis, publicity or consultation, and rushed through the Dewan Rakyat after less than a day of debate. This insidious Bill will allow the NSC, headed by the Prime Minister, to exercise similar emergency powers – on the use of violence and deadly force, of arrest, detention, search and seizure, imposition of curfew, control of movement, taking possession of land and property and other arbitrary powers against perceived threats of ‘national security’.

It has been claimed that these powers are necessary to protect ‘national security’, but there has been no credible explanation as to what sort of threat to ‘national security’ Malaysia is facing to justify granting such draconian powers to one person – the beleaguered and scandal-hit Prime Minister himself.

Assurances that this legislation will not be abused count for nothing as we have seen the misuse of SOSMA against Khairuddin Abu Hassan and his lawyer Matthias Chang for merely lodging reports overseas on the 1MDB scandal.

While these laws have been introduced with the ostensible purpose of combating threats of terrorism or subversion, serious concerns remain that the true purpose of these laws is to cement the government’s hold on power against its political adversaries.

Important state institutions like the police and the Attorney-General’s Chambers continue to be misused for politically motivated investigations and prosecutions. For example, the number of charges under the Sedition Act have increased exponentially by a whopping 1700% since 2013, compared to the period between 2007 and 2012.

It is noteworthy that while the vast majority of those charged for sedition are opposition members, dissidents, or members of civil society, there is little or no action taken against individuals who have made particularly provocative statements but are seen to be pro-UMNO. For example, Ibrahim Ali, Mohd Ali Baharom (his charge was dropped) and Jamal Yunos were not prosecuted, whereas action was taken without delay in the cases of Adam Adli, N. Surendran and Zunar, just to name a few.

Such differing treatment of individuals according to political inclination is a clear indicator of selective prosecution and double standards.  The Attorney-General’s Chambers and the police play an extremely significant role in upholding the rule of law and the protection of ordinary citizens through the investigation and prosecution of genuine criminal cases, as opposed to pursuing frivolous political matters such as peaceful assembly, sedition and comments on social media.

Further, deaths in police custody are a far too common occurrence, with an average of one case per month this year. Despite the landmark Coroner Court’s verdict that found police personnel to be responsible or criminally concerned with the deaths of Karuna Nithi and C. Sugumar, and the Enforcement Agency Integrity Commission’s (EAIC) damning inquiry report into the death of Syed Mohd Azlan – no action has been taken against the police personnel involved.

It has also been 10 years since the release of the Royal Commission of Inquiry report on the police force that made a key recommendation to set up the Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC). Needless to say, without the IPCMC being established, very little will change with regards to serious abuse of police powers including deaths in custody.

It is an unfortunate truism that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Mechanisms of check and balance, and independent state institutions, normally found within democracies are either absent or severely compromised in Malaysia – all of which leads to the bleak state of affairs on this Human Rights Day. Malaysia is well on its way to becoming a failed state.


Eric Paulsen is the Executive Director of Lawyers for Liberty