The Prime Minister should abolish the ISA
From the Wall Street Journal
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak promised in April that his government would conduct a “comprehensive review” of the Internal Security Act, a colonial-era law that allows indefinite detention without trial. On Saturday, 10,000 Malaysians marched in the streets of Kuala Lumpur to hold him to his word, asking him to abolish the act. They were soon dispersed with tear gas and water cannons, and 589 people were arrested.
The confrontation marks a turning point for Mr. Najib’s administration, which until now has refrained from employing roughshod tactics against political opponents. Earlier he won praise for releasing 26 ISA detainees and using that law to detain terrorists, not politicians or journalists as his predecessor did.
But even given that restraint, Malaysians increasingly want a more transparent and freer society. Saturday’s protest was nominally about the ISA, and it was organized by Abolish the ISA Movement, a human-rights group, along with other NGOs. But it was also a larger vote of dissatisfaction with the government’s decision to press ahead with a show trial of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim and the unexplained death last month of a young opposition political aide following several hours of interrogation by anti-corruption officials. Politicians from all three opposition parties were present at the protest, including Mr. Anwar.
Malaysia’s constitution guarantees the right to free speech and assembly. But police set up barricades and checkpoints on Friday to prevent crowds from gathering, and launched teargas Saturday before the march began. Under Malaysian law, street gatherings of more than five people are automatically illegal because they require a permit—which in practice is almost never granted. The prime minister’s office and the home office declined to comment to us yesterday, and the police didn’t return our calls.
Mr. Najib would be better served by embracing the protestors’ cause. Abolishing the ISA would not only benefit Malaysians—who would still be protected from terrorists by a host of other detention laws—but would also deny Mr. Anwar’s opposition coalition one of its key rallying points. Arresting opposition leaders, as police did Saturday, only augments their popularity.
Mr. Najib has so far proved to be a savvy leader and boosted his popularity ratings by introducing a series of reforms that begin to tackle Malaysia’s affirmative action polices. If he wants to demonstrate his reform bona fides he could start by listening to those protesters instead of chasing them away.