MALAYSIA is working its way to conferring to the fullest extent possible the freedoms enshrined in the Federal Constitution. The announcement that the prime minister will table the Peaceful Assembly Bill this week is a step, among recent others, to fulfil the promises made in his Malaysia Day address, which included a repeal of stringent laws that had outlived their usefulness. Tailored carefully after reviewing similar legislation from other democracies, the bill is expected to enact a law that will enable peaceful airings of grievances and other expressions through public assemblies. This does not imply a carte blanche for unruly street protests, however. There is still a need for caution: although a new generation is taking over, the 1969 race riots have not yet faded into distant history.
As it will replace Section 27 of the Police Act, the Peaceful Assembly Act (PAA) is expected to do away with police permits for mass assemblies. The organisers will, however, have to inform the local authority affected of their intention in writing. As is common to PAAs generally, the notification is expected to contain details such as venue, schedule and other matters relating to public order, including the possibility of there being public nuisance issues. It is also said that any member of the public can make a police report, on a justifiable basis, to invite a police visit and consequent appropriate action.
In Queensland, Australia, the PAA 1992 makes provision for possible refusal of approval with an application to the magistrate’s court, on the grounds that restrictions imposed by the act will be breached. These restrictions include issues of public safety, public order and the protection of the rights and freedoms of others. As is true of any court procedure, the decision can be appealed. Malaysia’s PAA, put together from precedents and international best practices, is expected to encompass all-round protections. To be truly effective, the proposed act must override every law, bylaw and regulation that could compromise what it seeks to ensure, although there is certainly much to be said for such assemblies to be responsible for what they leave behind. Apart from such details, the motive of the government of Datuk Seri Najib Razak is clear: to take the country’s constitutional democracy to a higher and more mature plane.