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Malaysia Repeals Detention, Media Laws Ahead of Elections

Prime Minister Najib Razak announced Malaysia’s biggest political reforms since independence in 1957, two months after street protests that led to the arrest of more than 1,600 people.

Najib said he would abolish the Internal Security Act and Emergency Ordinance, which allow for detention without trial, to ensure that people in future can’t be held for their political affiliations. The government will also loosen restrictions on the media and public assembly, he said in a speech broadcast in Malay language on national television today.

“The abolition of the ISA, and the other historic changes, underline my commitment to making Malaysia a modern, progressive democracy that can be proud to take its place at the top table of international leadership,” Najib said. “Many will question whether I am moving too far, too fast. There may be short-term pain for me politically, but in the long term the changes I am announcing will ensure a brighter, more prosperous future.”

Najib, 58, vowed to improve democratic freedoms before national elections that could be held as early as next year, and after a backlash against the country’s response to a July 9 rally demanding an overhaul of electoral laws. Groups such as Amnesty International condemned the use of force to detain the peaceful activists for defying a government ban to march on the capital.

“It’s geared toward the election,” Ong Kian Ming, a political analyst at UCSI University in Kuala Lumpur, said of Najib’s speech in a telephone interview today.

Falling Popularity

The election protests were held by group of more than 60 non-governmental organizations, known as Bersih 2.0, which has the support of opposition political parties. Bersih wants electoral changes, such as lengthening campaign periods to at least 21 days and using indelible ink on fingers to prevent people from voting more than once.

Public support for Najib fell to 59 percent in August from 65 percent in May, according to a survey by Selangor-based Merdeka Center for Opinion Research. He had the highest rating of 72 percent in May 2010. The decline of his popularity was due to rising concerns over increasing living costs and the government’s handling of the Bersih 2.0 rally, the center said in a report on Aug. 29. The poll of 1,027 people was taken from Aug. 11 to 27 and didn’t give a margin of error.

Najib said in a statement last month the government would establish a bi-partisan parliamentary committee to review changes to electoral laws, and that authorities would also consider amending laws governing censorship of print media.

Blacked Out

During the July demonstrations, Malaysia’s Home Ministry blacked out parts of an article in the Economist that called the government “overzealous” in its handling of the Bersih rally.

“It’s a positive development that opens up space for freedom of speech, rule of law and transparency,” Ibrahim Suffian, a political analyst at Merdeka Center said in a telephone interview. “The proof lies in the implementation of these statements and the nature of the laws meant to replace the ISA.”

The Internal Security Act was introduced in 1960 in the wake on an armed insurgency by Communist rebels, giving the police wide-ranging powers to detain suspects indefinitely. It will be replaced by a law that would incorporate more judicial oversight and limit police powers to detain people for preventative reasons, Najib said.

Opponents Held

Opposition leaders including Anwar Ibrahim, Lim Guan Eng and Karpal Singh have been held under this law. The same regulation remains in neighboring Singapore, another former British colony.

The Emergency Ordinance was introduced in Malaysia following race riots in 1969, allowing suspects to be detained for up to two years with consent of a minister. The government used it against six opposition politicians in July.

“This will be replaced by a law that will not compromise on national security and terrorism, while increasing democratic accountability and judicial oversight,” the government said in an e-mailed statement today.

Media laws will be repealed so that licenses can remain valid indefinitely unless revoked in line with international practices, it said. Previously, they had to be renewed annually.

The constitution guarantees the right to freedom of peaceful assembly. However, the law has required police permission before gatherings could go ahead, including on private land such as stadiums.

“This law will now be reviewed to bring Malaysia in line with international standards, while ensuring that the police retain the right to prevent violent scenes on the nation’s streets,” according to the government statement.

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