Friday, September 16, 2011

Malaysia to repeal the Internal Security Act?

The Internal Security Act is one of Malaysia's most oppressive laws. A relic of British rule (naturally), it allows the government to arrest and detain anyone without trial for an indefinite period. The law has been used against trade unionists, student leaders, academics, NGO activists, and political leaders, usually for little more than criticising the government of the day. Over 10,000 people have been detained in this way, some for decades. But now, the Malaysian government is going to repeal it.

This is good news, but it comes with a bitter aftertaste. The law will be repealed - but it will also be replaced with a similar regime, which will still allow detention without charge or trial (but only of "militants", which, as we've seen, is quite a flexible term which seems to cover anyone the government doesn't like). Any reduction in such detentions is welcome, but if Malaysia really wants to call itself a modern democracy, it needs to eliminate them entirely. Modern democracies do not imprison people without charge or trial, no matter what they have done. Instead, they are arrested, charged, and prosecuted. If the evidence does not support prosecution, then they are allowed to go about their business, because they haven't broken the law. Imprisoning them anyway, just because some politician feels like it, is a fundamental violation of the rule of law. And that's something we see in despotisms, not modern democracies.