Objective of new Bill unclear – Azmi Sharom

Source: The Star Online


Azmi Sharom - file picTHE National Security Council Bill, which was debated and passed with unseemly haste last week, has been facing a lot of flak. Those who are concerned with human rights think this new law is about as welcome as flatulence in a crowded elevator.

I have not said anything about the law up till now because I wanted to have a look at it myself first, to see what all the fuss is about. After all, heaven forbid I be accused of jumping on the bandwagon. A friend very kindly found a copy and sent it to me and I have spent the last few hours perusing it.

My opinion? Open the elevator doors and let me out of here!

There is so much to be concerned about with the Act but as space is limited I shall only discuss what I think is most worrying.

The Act starts with a little explanatory paragraph. Bear with me as I reproduce it here.

“An Act to provide for the establishment of the National Security Council, the declaration of security areas, the special powers of the Security Forces in the security areas and other related matters”.

Notice anything? It is totally perfunctory.

There is no mention about the ultimate purpose and objective of the Act. There is no indication at all about the thinking behind this law and why it is necessary.

Is it primarily about defending the country from actual incursions like the one that occurred in Sabah a few years ago? This is what is hinted at by Government statements, but it is not in the law itself.

What this means is that when courts are faced with cases based on this law in the future, there is no hint whatsoever as to its reason and therefore they will be hard pressed to make any sort of interpretation.

I suppose this is the purpose of having such a mechanical preamble; it ensures that there is as little room as possible for any interpretation of the law that may limit the vast powers vested in the Government by this Act by the boundaries of stated objectives and purpose.

Moving right along, we come to the definitions part of the Act. It does not cover many vitally important terms used in the statute.

If we look at section 4, we see that the functions of the Council are listed out. Amongst them is the power to formulate policies and strategies for a variety of issues including national security, socio-political stability, economic stability and national unity.

These issues are not what automatically pop into the mind when thinking about using a law such as this. This act is highly militaristic, and one would have thought that such a law would be used only for militaristic threats.

To make matters worse, none of these terms are actually defined by the Act. What this means is that the Council can take very draconian measures (which I shall discuss later) on grounds of their own liking. Such seemingly unlimited power is highly undesirable because it is open to some serious abuse.

And just what are these draconian measures? It all starts with the declaration of a “security area”.

The Prime Minister may declare an area a security area. There is no limit in the Act as to how large this area can be.

Once a security area is declared, within this area the Security Forces (basically the police and the military) have tremendous powers. These powers include arrest, search and seizure without warrant.

The Director of Operations (the person tasked with the day-to-day running of the security area), can declare curfews, evacuate entire communities and “resettle” them in an area he determines (this sent chills down my spine), occupy and even destroy buildings if deemed necessary.

Now, I am not a military man. The closest I ever got to the armed forces was when I worked as a butt marker (long story) in the military shooting range at Bisley.

So, maybe in times of war or armed conflict such measures may be necessary; I can’t say with any conviction they are not. But as pointed out earlier, this Act does not limit itself to armed conflict type situations.

And herein lies the danger and the absolutely justifiable discomfort that one feels towards this law. It can be used for all sorts of reasons the Council sees fit, which may include peaceful civil disobedience.

What if it is said that the Act will only be used in such situations where there is a clear and present danger of armed conflict, like the Sabah incursion? Well, before we take such promises seriously, let’s just take a look at recent events.

We can see laws which when they were made, we were promised would only be used to curb violence (like the amended Penal Code which provides for harsh action against acts which “threaten parliamentary democracy”) and yet we have seen them being used to curb legitimate dissent.

I’m sorry, but the track record speaks for itself. There has been no hesitation to use laws in ways which crush the remnants of democracy we have. This new one could well be the last nail in our democracy’s coffin.

I simply do not have the space to discuss other frightening aspects of this law which include the immunity against legal proceedings given to the Council and all involved in its activities; the fact that the so-called parliamentary check and balance is easily avoided if Parliament is not sitting; and the power given to the Prime Minister to extend the period an area is declared as a security area indefinitely.

This law is too horrible to be discussed in a thousand words. It simply must be opposed.

Azmi Sharom is a law teacher.


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