Commentary 2016/40, 3 August 2016
On 1 August 2016, the National Security Council (NSC) Act came into effect after the bill was tabled and passed quickly in December 2015. The Act allows the NSC – chaired by a Malaysian Prime Minister (PM) – to take command of the country’s security forces and police locations designated as security areas. Individuals within these security areas can be searched or detained without warrant if necessary. This ‘security area’ status is valid for six months, but can be indefinitely renewed six months at a time by the sitting PM upon advice from the NSC.
From a national security perspective, that is, from the standpoint of the state, this Act is a necessary evil. This justification emanates from the transnational threat posed by the Islamic State (IS), which carried out its first ever successful attack on Malaysian soil in June 2016. It was orchestrated by locals, reportedly taking their cue from Malaysian-born Syria-based IS advocate Muhammad Wanndy Mohamed Jedi. Against the backdrop of heightened concerns of IS militants planning and executing attacks in Southeast Asia, it is understandable why PM Najib Razak has called for “greater action against terrorism.” Defending the NSC Act, Najib asserted that “my government will never apologise for placing the safety and security of the Malaysian people first.” Refuting the IS ideology as being antithetical to Islam, Najib called for Malaysians to unite in joining the international community to combat terrorism.
From a libertarian perspective that cherishes the preservation of individual freedoms, the NSC Act is a threat to civil liberties as it accords sweeping security powers to the state. Led by Malaysian civil society groups, the opposition to the Act is primarily attributed to unbridled powers resting in the hands of just one man in PM Najib.
The fractured political opposition in Malaysia suspects that the Act is a smokescreen for Najib to deflect attention from the 1MDB scandal and may also be used against political adversaries to shore up support for the PM and the UMNO-led Barisan Nasional government among the public.
In a globalised age where terrorism is an existential threat, there has to be a balance between preserving national security and protecting civil liberties. The pendulum as of now seems to have swung towards security.
Mustafa Izzuddin is Fellow at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute.
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