Govt of the people ... for the people

THE outgoing government-authored a whole litany of repressive laws – giving ministers and officialdom immense powers over the citizenry. Culminating in the Delineation report (which according to the Economist was tailored to favour the ruling party – alas, how it failed!) and the infamous Anti-Fake News Act. Both rushed through in the sunset throes of the last government facilitated skilfully, as always, by the then Speaker of the Dewan Rakyat.

The present government recognises the pernicious impact of these laws – no less than a flagrant violation of our fundamental liberties as guaranteed by the Federal Constitution. In short, an unabashed violation of the Rule of Law. Hence the present government's earnest endeavour to remove those laws that abridge our democratic values.

In that context, it has established a Council of Eminent Persons essentially to deal with economic reforms. But without the accompanying institutional changes, the reforms would be undermined. So, it established the Institutional Reforms Committee (IRC) with the object of, among others, reforming these institutions and ensuring their independence. Its two key mandates include:

» the study of all laws that are antithetical to the rule of law (that is repressive and unjustly applied); followed by

» recommendations for their repeal or amendment.

The five-member IRC panel has commenced its work – inviting papers from the public and experts; and holding dialogues with a vast range of stakeholders. A true and glorious start to participatory democracy, in accord with the Pakatan Harapan coalition's manifesto.

The IRC's recommendations (due by July 16) will be taken up by the government via the council.

What is the status of the council and the IRC? Well, a government that wishes to be in tune with its populace should create various channels of communication. As said the UK secretary of state in Parliament: "In line with the practice of successive administrations, the department routinely consults the public, interested parties and client groups by way of consultation papers and research projects on a wide range of policies and proposed legislation". Advisory bodies – which is what the council and IRC are – are yet another example of a channel of communication. In short, they are perfectly legal and a commendable feature of a responsive democratic government.

And now for the IRC to clear the statute books of the large litter of objectionable laws, many of which were routinely (and often selectively) applied to punish our young (such as Adam Adli for sedition); cartoonists and literati (such as Zunar and Fahri Reza) and opposition MPs (Siva Rasa) under section 233(1)(a) of the Communications and Multimedia Act – which criminalises online communication "which is obscene, indecent, false, menacing or offensive with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten, harass another person." An identical provision was declared unconstitutional by the Indian Supreme Court in 2015; similarly, by Canada and the US.

A politician and his lawyer (Khairuddin and Mathias Chang) who complained to the Swiss authorities about funds misappropriated from 1MDB were charged under section 124B of the Penal Code of a novel crime – undermining parliamentary democracy. A law intended for terrorist-like activity, as declared by Minister Nazri to Parliament when proposing the law.

Maria Chin Abdullah was imprisoned under a security law – Sosma on the eve of the Bersih 5 rally. Its procedures – made applicable to the whole set of laws – are surreal, and overturn the time-tested established criminal procedures that make for a fair result. Even a person acquitted of a crime can be kept in prison until the long appeal process is exhausted by the prosecution.

A former MP (Surendran) continues to be prosecuted for exciting disaffection against the administration of justice for comments made to the press after a case management hearing. Long after Parliament abolished this particular seditious element; and even when he was talking about the inappropriate prosecution of Anwar Ibrahim – since fully pardoned of any crime.

The list goes on – of detention without trial, of persons (including human rights activists) incarcerated on the mere say-so of police to magistrates, of natural justice, excluded and judicial review ousted by immigration officials, of the prohibition against peaceful street protests. Under laws that go by poetic acronyms: PAA, POTA and POCA.

We may recall that Najib started his premiership with a flourish of abolishing repressive laws – the ISA, the Restricted Residence Act. More was promised. Even new laws projected – such as the National Harmony Act. Somewhere along the way, the plot was lost or abandoned. Instead – aided no doubt by such erstwhile colleagues as Ahmad Zahid Hamidi – he ended up piling several tiers of over-lapping laws. All of which has cost them heavy.

And now under new helmanship – commencing with the IRC and the council – the process has started. To unchain us from this deluge of subterfuge laws. Ushered in by the liberating May 9 vote, birthing a New Democratic phase.

To recall Lincoln's stirring 1863 Gettysburg address after the civil war: "(T)hat this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom — and that government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth". To cherish life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

Gurdial, a former law professor, is involved in providing input to the IRC. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com