Saturday, April 21, 2012

Ambiga: ‘Whirlwind’ of law reforms pointless without clean polls

Ambiga: ‘Whirlwind’ of law reforms pointless without clean polls

April 21, 2012
Malaysian Insider

KUALA LUMPUR, April 21 The sudden "whirlwind" of legislative reforms to the country's restrictive laws has left Malaysians both elated and disappointed in the ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) government ahead of the 13th general election, Bersih co-chair Datuk Ambiga Sreenavasan has said.

Datuk Seri Najib Razak and his team may have earned plus points for daring to slacken the government's leash over civil freedom, a historical point in Malaysian politics, but the prime minister's failed attempt at electoral reform had hurtled him back to square one, she said.

The vocal civil society leader added that although crucial restrictive legal provisions were removed in recent months, they were forced down the throats of Malaysians in a rushed manner, drawing suspicion over the government's true motive for reform.

"To me, the speed at which new laws and amendments were suddenly being pushed through Parliament, without consideration at all for consultation and opposition viewpoints, I think, reeks of suspicion.

"All it shows is that the elections are close," Ambiga (picture) told The Malaysian Insider recently.

"We are in a bit of a whirlwind, really, with these legislations being passed through in such a rushed manner.

"Some people say it’s a good thing... but to many, you (the government) are only doing this because of the elections.

"This how it would just enforce the insincerity of the government," she said.

In the span of two Dewan Rakyat sittings and about six months, the government had pushed through a record number of critical amendments to laws long described as draconian by civil society groups and those in the opposition camp.

Key among these was the repeal of the Internal Security Act (ISA), the 1960 anti-Communist insurgency law which critics have accused the government of misusing to threaten and quell opposition dissent.

A new legislation, the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act, was proposed in its place, removing the government's power under the ISA to throw a person behind bars for up to two years without trial.

Last November, both Houses of Parliament approved the Peaceful Assembly Act 2011, a fresh law mooted by the government to permit public gatherings after the authorities arrested over 1,600 individuals and sprayed tear gas and chemical-laced water to disperse Bersih 2.0's peaceful rally for free and fair elections last July 9.

On the final day of the Dewan Rakyat sitting on Thursday, the government also lifted the over four-decade-old ban on student participation in politics after approving amendments to the highly-criticised University and University Colleges Act 1971.

In a rare show of unity, both Barisan Nasional (BN) and Pakatan Rakyat (PR) lawmakers even unanimously agreed to widen academic freedom by voting positively on a motion to allow university students to hold posts in both political parties and on-campus organisations.

Adding to the growing list, Dewan Rakyat also agreed to loosen government control over media freedom slightly, passing during the historic sitting at 2.15am yesterday amendments to the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984.

Despite the Bill's harried manner of approval and uproar from the opposition bench, the amendment effectively clips Putrajaya's wings over the granting of publishing permits and scraps the annual permit renewal requirement earlier imposed on publications in the PPPA.

Other significant legislative reforms include earlier amendments to the Police Act, the repeal of the Banishment Act 1959 and Restricted Residence Act 1933, the lifting of three Emergency Declarations and the tabling of the Malaysia Volunteers Corps (RELA) Bill 2012, a new law that removes the organisation's powers of arrest and firearms possession.

But these legislative reforms, said Ambiga, merely offer a "psychological boost" in the people's support and trust in Najib and BN.

She said some may celebrate them, but others would eventually realise that the key to a truly democratic nation that respects civil freedom was a clean and fair election process.

This, Ambiga charged, was Najib's biggest and greatest failure in his "whirlwind" of reforms.

"To me, there are plus points for the amendments, which are definitely liberalising. But... there are many pertinent complaints as well.

"There is a lot of unhappiness all around about the election process... will there be free and fair elections next? We are doubtful. Because this, in my view, has not been addressed," she said.

Another reformist move taken by Najib was to form the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) for electoral reform last October, tasking it to look into key demands made by Bersih and opposition lawmakers on how to clean up the election process.

But when its six-month tenure was up, the bipartisan panel tabled on April 2 what Ambiga and PR representatives have described as a report lacking in true reform to the many discrepancies they have uncovered in the electoral roll.

"The glaring absence of true reform speaks volumes. Even worse, the report was rushed through Parliament without debate.

"So many things could have otherwise been trashed out," she said.

"The most obvious shortcoming is that the report did not state a deadline for the reforms. If there is commitment to implement the PSC's 22 recommendations before the 13th general election... then everything would be resolved."

Ambiga added that BN had missed a grand opportunity to coax voter support.

"I have said in the past and I mean it still today - if they are committed to electoral reform, their popularity would grow. But they reformed many other things and the part about elections, they completely failed," she said.

"Now, they are back to square one."

Bersih 3.0, which has received the backing of PR parties of PAS, PKR and DAP, will kick off at 2pm next Saturday at Dataran Merdeka in the capital city.

The government has given the green light for the rally, in the spirit of the Peaceful Assembly Act 2011 but City Hall yesterday rejected the group's plan to use the historic square for a non-violent sit-down show of civil disobedience.

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