Back to square one

28 July 2016

When I was four years old, the government of the country in which I was living passed a law called the Terrorism Act. This authorised indefinite detention without trial of anyone charged with terrorism, which was very broadly defined. There was no time limit to this detention and fortnightly visits by magistrates were allowed “if circumstances permitted”. No other visitors were allowed and the public was not entitled to any information relating to who was being detained. Two years later the Criminal Procedure Amendment Act was passed, which provided for 180-day detention without trial and re-detention after that. Detainees could be held in solitary confinement and courts had no jurisdiction to order their release.

Next week the National Security Council Act comes into force in the country in which I am now living. This allows the prime minister to declare any area a “security area”, in which he can deploy forces to search any person, vehicle or premise without a warrant. It also allows investigators to dispense with formal inquests into killings by the police or armed forces in those areas.

More than 50 years separates these two examples of people’s rights being dismantled by governments, which makes me feel as though we have made no progress at all. Detention without any recourse to the courts is a powerful weapon in the hands of a minority government determined to stamp out any opposition. The world community was outraged and responded by imposing harsher and harsher sanctions against the country in question. A prime minister with the power to declare any area a “security area” in which citizens lose all rights to the due process of the law provides that prime minister with the means to get rid of any person or organisation that opposes him.  While there has been negative reporting in the world’s media, there has been no talk of sanctions against the prime minister and his government.

When I was growing up and coming into full realisation of the shocking system in which I lived, I heard adults saying “If you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to be afraid of” when discussing the increasingly draconian laws of the land. But I knew then that they were wrong. It is not wrong to disagree with the government of the day or to propose alternative ways of doing things. It is not wrong to say publicly that the country’s leaders are misguided and should be replaced by those who will uphold the rule of law and the rights of all citizens. Yet in those days, if you expressed such views you could disappear into a detention centre and never be heard from again. Indeed this happened all too often.

The National Security Council Act has been described as necessary to protect the country against radical elements. But the likelihood of it being used to crack down on any opposition is very high. Indeed it is certain, given the recent track record of this government in arresting critics, jailing opposition leaders and stifling free speech by suspending media groups and blogs.

My consolation is that I am a temporary resident here. I will return to the country I chose to live in, as different from both the country of my birth and this country as it is possible to be – where there is a functioning democracy and freedom of speech. But that is no solace for the people who live here and for whom next week will bring a severe curtailment of their human rights.

Update: 18 November 2016

Report about curtailing of freedom of speech in Malaysia:

Update: 22 November 2016

Arrest and detention without trial of those opposing the Malaysian government: