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Mahathir Mohamad

Malaysian PM Mahathir vows to repeal controversial security law

Former PM Najib Razak was accused of using the law to stifle criticism, something Mahathir is also said to have done during his first stint as leader

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 July, 2018, 4:11pm
UPDATED : Monday, 23 July, 2018, 8:05pm

Malaysia will repeal a tough security law used to detain government critics without charge under the former government, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad has said, with activists on Monday hailing the “bold” vow.

It was the latest pledge by the country’s new leaders to roll back repressive legislation introduced by scandal-tainted ex-premier Najib Razak, whose long-serving government was toppled at elections in May.

Leading pro-democracy activists were among those arrested using the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act, or SOSMA, introduced in 2012 with the supposed aim to combat security threats from extremists.

It allows for suspects to be detained without charge for 28 days and can incur a lengthy prison sentence.

In a speech on Sunday night, Mahathir said Najib used repressive laws to do “whatever he liked” and vowed to abolish SOSMA.

“The people will now be protected under laws that are fair and any offences will be brought before and decided by the court,” he was quoted as saying by the New Straits Times newspaper.

Eric Paulsen, legal director of Southeast Asia-focused rights group Fortify Rights, hailed the announcement as “timely and bold”.

“We demand that no one should be detained without trial or be a victim of arbitrary arrest,” he said.

One of the most high-profile figures detained under SOSMA was Maria Chin Abdullah, the former leader of “Bersih”, a group that staged huge rallies against Najib’s government.

She was arrested in 2016 on the eve of a protest and kept in solitary confinement for 10 days. She is now an MP with the ruling alliance.

Najib launched a crackdown on government critics after allegations emerged he was at the centre of the massive scandal linked to state fund 1MDB. He was arrested this month and has been charged with corruption.

During his first stint as premier from 1981-2003, Mahathir also used repressive laws to target critics. More than 100 people, including opposition politicians and activists, were arrested and detained without trial during a major crackdown in 1987.

While he is scrapping the security law, Mahathir also wants to relax election laws, by reducing the voting age to 18 before the next elections, which are due by 2023.

Youth and Sports Minister Syed Saddiq Syed Abdul Rahman, 25, said the cabinet plans to ask the attorney general’s office to look into what laws need to be changed.

Lowering the voting age to 18 from 21 would add an additional 3.7 million voters, Saddiq said, increasing the number of registered voters by about 25 per cent from the election in May. Voters aged 21-39 make up around 40 per cent of the Malaysian electorate, twice the number of voters over 60, according to Election Commission data.

“That means the youth voter block becomes bigger and stronger, and therefore, they cannot be sidelined in the Malaysian political scene any more,” said Saddiq, Malaysia’s youngest ever cabinet minister.

High youth unemployment proved to be a critical factor in the vote that ousted Najib.

“The youth care about two primary issues,” Saddiq said. “One is about bread and butter issues, which is cost of living, affordable housing, good employment opportunities, and quality of life.”

The second is getting their voice heard in the nation-building process, he said.

“Young voters are the true kingmakers in the elections – they were the ones who brought us into government,” Saddiq said. “But also a word of caution, they could also be the ones who take us out from government, because they are not loyal to any political party.”

Agence France-Presse, Bloomberg