EVEN though the new coalition of Pakatan Harapan (PH) came into power in May 2018, and has been in power until last Monday, many oppressive laws are still in place. PH’s convincing win in the 14th general election (GE14) heralded a golden opportunity for reform given the coalition’s manifesto promises.
PH promised to repeal or amend oppressive laws such as the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA), the Sedition Act, the Prevention of Crime Act (POCA) and the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act.
Their manifesto also guaranteed media freedom, the review of the Official Secrets Act and a new Freedom of Information law. Reform has been slow since the people’s victory at the elections less than two years ago. The Sedition Act, POCA, SOSMA, PPPA, and section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) are all still in place. In fact, investigations and charges for “offensive statements” are still occurring under these laws.
Some progress has been made. The voting age has been lowered to 18. The Universities and University Colleges Act was amended to allow for greater student political participation, with the promise of more reforms. The Peaceful Assembly Act was amended to shorten the notice period for holding assemblies. The amendments also allow for the issuance of compounds for non-compliance with the notice period, which do not carry criminal records, as opposed to criminal charges.
The Official Secrets Act is being reviewed by the Legal Affairs Division in the Prime Minister’s Department, with plans to enact a Freedom of Information Act. Consultations have already been held with government agencies about what form the new Act should take. A Media Council Steering Committee, which I am a part of, is working on a draft bill and reviewing the laws that need to be abolished or amended for the media council to be successful. These include the PPPA, the Sedition Act and section 233 of the CMA.
The Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC) got the closest it has ever come to existing, although the second reading of its bill was postponed. As part of the process, (now former) Minister Datuk Liew Vui Keong held open consultations with stakeholders, including civil society. The women’s groups have been collaborating with the Women, Family and Community Development Ministry. In the pipeline were two laws that were meant to be tabled in Parliament that would tackle sexual harassment and stalking.
Plans were also in place to introduce a two-term limit for the prime minister and to pass a Parliamentary Services Act to re-establish Parliament’s independence. Now that the PH government has fallen and its future hangs in the balance, what will happen to these planned reforms?
A lack of reform leads to real consequences for people on the ground. When leaders are free to enrich themselves and defraud the public, enabled by oppressive laws and unaccountable institutions, the nation suffers. Wages remain low, money for health and education diverted, and resources to deal with climate change, food security and water stress will be scarce.
The people of Malaysia voted overwhelmingly to change the government on 9 May 2018. Those of us who voted out the BN government may vary greatly in our politics, beliefs and values. But, we all knew that the BN had to go so that we could strengthen our institutions and put our country back on track. The PH government may have fallen for now, but that spirit should not fall with it.
In the 2008 election, many were shocked when the BN lost its two-thirds majority in Parliament. In 2018, we were shocked again when the BN lost power. Perhaps we should stop being shocked. We are powerful when we are united, and those who attempt to thwart the people’s will do well to remember that.
We must constantly keep in sight our common outcomes for the nation. I hope that in the coming days, Malaysians from all walks of life, will continue to call for the continuation of reform.
The writer is a qualified lawyer and was part of the legal team assisting the Institutional Reforms Committee set up by the Pakatan Harapan government in May 2018