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Friday, November 25, 2011

Malaysia's ‘Peaceful’ Bill off to a rocky start, at odds with PM’s speech

‘Peaceful’ Bill off to a rocky start

Analysis By Baradan Kuppusamy

The Peaceful Assembly Bill 2011 seeks to regularise public protests. The Opposition, however, claims the conditions are so strict it makes demonstrating even more difficult.

THE Peaceful Assembly Bill 2011 ran into heavy flak from the Opposition the moment it was introduced for first reading in Parliament on Monday by Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak (c) during a televised statement on security laws 

 Prime Minister Najib Razak’s move comes ahead of a general election expected early next year

They want the law, which provides for public protest without the need for a police permit, withdrawn.

They say conditions attached to public protest are stiff and numerous; police are still the arbitrators and that the notion of allowing public assemblies is defeated by the new Bill. 

 At the same time the  Bill was tabled, Nazri also tabled the amendment Bills repealing Section 27 of the Police Act that requires an organiser to get a police permit for any gathering of more than five persons.

In a nutshell, the need for a permit - one of the things the Opposition and civil rights groups have been campaigning for - has been removed.

They should be rejoicing but they are not.

Opposition MPs and civil society advocates say that although the provision for a permit has been repealed, the Peaceful Assembly Bill stipulates numerous conditions that hamper the people’s constitutional right to peaceful assembly and exercise their right to protest.

What the Government has done is to introduce a Bill that says you can protest and the need for a permit is repealed but only within the accepted parameters and without impinging on the rights of others who are not a party to the protest.

The Opposition and civil society’s immediate reaction is that the attached conditions are strict and makes public protest more difficult than under the Police Act.

Under Section 27 of Police Act you just organise a protest – with or without a permit - and subsequently face the consequences.

This is the preferred method of the Opposition and that’s why illegal assembly cases still continue in the courts for participation or organisation of the first Bersih protest in 2007.

Those involved were activists and rabble rousers but have since been elected MPs and will be voting to oppose the Peaceful Assembly Bill in Parliament!

Under the new Bill, public protest is regularised – while the right to protest over a certain cause is given, the right to not protest or to oppose is also given.

That’s why there are stringent conditions, sometimes impossible conditions, attached to the right to protest which includes that the OCPD should be notified within 30 days. He would respond within 12 days and children 15 years and below are barred from participating.

And then there are increased penalties for those who break the rules like up to RM20,000 for bringing an underage person to an assembly.

The OCPD can impose restrictions which, if not followed, would lead to fines of up to RM10,000.

There is an appeal clause to the minister on the restrictions within four days and the minister has to respond within six days.

Lastly some areas are off-limits for any protest – like places of worship, schools and hospitals.

On the face of it, the restrictions are stringent and probably unworkable especially the one requiring protestors to give 30 days’ notice but as Lord Denning said: “Your rights end where the rights of others begin”.

That’s exactly what the formulators of the law have in mind by imposing conditions that are deemed necessary to allow protest without needing to get police permits.

Unfortunately, one has to sacrifice something to gain something.

Even in some advanced countries like the United States and Britain, protests are only allowed at designated areas.

In New York, for instance, you can protest in front of the United Nations but some distance away.

In other places, too, police broke up the Occupy Brooklyn Bridge protest and Occupy St Paul’s Cathedral in London. In Hong Kong, police prefer night protests conducted away from the all-important business district.

Each country has its “soft underbelly” that it wants to protect and maintain without disruption and Malaysia has said places of worships and schools are off limits.

While the giving of notices and the waiting for responses take out the spontaneity of public protests, the gain is that you don’t need a police permit for any protest of five or more people.

But the people have been asked to pay a heavy price for it in the form of numerous restrictions.

As PAS leaders said, if Israel were to attack Saudi Arabia, Malaysians would have to wait 30 days before protesting.

Perhaps, as the Bar Council suggests, a standing committee could be formed to rectify the weakness at the committee stage of the Bill’s passage – especially the provision to give 30 days’ notice.

This would allow Members of Parliament to study the Bill and its provisions in greater depth and lessen the restrictions to allow the public to exercise their democratic right to protest.

Bill at odds with PM’s speech


The drafters of the Peaceful Assembly Bill now before Parliament must have missed what was undoubtedly the Prime Minister’s finest speech of his administration so far, delivered on the eve of Malaysia Day.

I was looking forward to reading the Peaceful Assembly Bill tabled this week. I was expecting a document that would re-affirm and strengthen the freedom and liberties mentioned by our Constitution.

I was hoping furthermore that perhaps, finally, Malaysians would have a government that would once again speak fondly about freedom and liberty in the same way that our first Prime Minister did about those principles: whether in speeches at home or abroad (such as in his now-forgotten condemnations of apartheid in South Africa), or whether in print to other world leaders or through his columns in this newspaper.

These hopes were dashed. Lawyer-commentators are still picking through details as I write this, but it seems apparent that it might result in an even more suffocating environment for freedom of expression than what exists now.

The ban on “street protests”, defined by the Bill, is outright.

The powers conferred upon the police are enormous, not only in weighing the rights of “other persons” who (they may claim) are affected by assemblies, but also in demanding 30 days’ notice, thus preventing spontaneous gatherings of the sort that we have seen throughout the Arab Spring, or 65 years ago during the opposition to the Malayan Union (that partially resulted in the parliamentary democracy, constitutional monarchy and federal system that we all enjoy today).

Perhaps the legislation will be amended for the better if and when it passes through the various readings in both Houses of Parlia­ment.

For now, though, the Bill seems disgracefully at odds with what was undoubtedly our current Prime Minister’s finest speech of his administration, delivered on the eve of Malaysia Day this year. I wonder if those drafting the Bill missed it.

Still, we Malaysians are connoisseurs of witnessing disgraceful behaviour from the political class.
My fellow columnist Datin Paduka Marina Mahathir provided some wonderful examples in her article on Wednesday.

Sometimes, however, a decent member of the political class is in fact a victim of the disgraceful behaviour of someone else. (This is why the efforts of CPPS and UndiMalaysia to get us to assess our YBs are very important – we all benefit from further granularity in our opinions of individual politicians.)

One example of this has just surfaced. It concerns the Deputy Higher Education Minister Datuk Saifuddin Abdullah, who I have praised before and will continue commending if he continues with his progressive, common-sense statements.

He was invited to speak about his latest book Kalau Saya Mahasiswa (downloadable at by the Law Students Association of the International Islamic University on Monday, but at the last moment, the programme was cancelled and ostensibly postponed.

This was apparently after orders by the university’s Rector herself.

Regular readers will no doubt recall that I described the earlier suspension of Professor Abdul Aziz Bari as “thoroughly idiotic”, but – I may now be banned by the university myself for saying this – I can think of no better way than to describe the cancellation of an appearance by a Government deputy minister as utter genius.

I am sure that these actions will really get the university up there in the league tables.

My apologies – sometimes bone-headedness can only suitably be countered by the lowest form of wit.

Thankfully, there are still many inspiring distractions that punctuate these crazy weeks as everyone clears their to-do lists for 2011.

On Saturday I attended the Royal Gala Concert of the first International Festival of Classical Music organised by the Chopin Society of Malaysia.

The event truly was international (despite some scepticism before the show), with players hailing from 14 countries.

The repertoire consisted of pieces designed mostly to showcase technical skill, and virtuosity was certainly in ample supply that evening.

One piece that was both technically demanding and gorgeously tuneful was Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu, which brought back some memories as it was my A-Level performance piece back in 1999.

That evening it was played by an 11-year- old Malaysian, Brian Ting Yit Zheng, and many were amazed by the emotion he managed to transmit during the lyrical middle section.

Then again, young people who are musical are often so much more mature than their peers.

The concert ended with the world premiere of …Shadow… (scored for piano, gamelan and Malay percussion with shadow puppet accompaniment) by Seremban boy Ng Chong Lim, STM (Setiawan Tuanku Muhriz).

He was one of four musicians awarded during the Birthday Honours of the Yang di-Pertuan Besar of Negri Sembilan in January – the others being pianist Foo Mei-Yi, STM; harpist Katryna Tan, STM; and pianist-composer Chong Yew Boon, DTM (Darjah Tuanku Muhriz); whose work on Berkatlah Yang di-Pertuan Besar continues to arouse patriotism during many a peaceful assembly throughout the state.

■ Tunku ’Abidin Muhriz is president of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs.

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