Interview on POTA: Part II
Part 2 on Malaysian Parliament, 9 March – 9 April 2015 session: On anti-terrorism, sedition, bloc voting, missing MPs and more. Q&A with Wong Chen, Parti Keadilan Rakyat Member of Parliament for Kelana Jaya, 11 April 2015.
Q. Was the POTA legislation rushed? What’s with the 12-hour debate until the wee hours?
POTA was not only rushed. It was bulldozed through. Apparently, Malaysia is about to be attacked by terrorists. That’s what the IGP said a week ago. Therefore, BN need it, and they need it now. The bills was so needed that it had to be passed at 2.30 a.m. The Malaysian Parliament isn’t anything like many other Parliaments in the Commonwealth and other legislatures elsewhere. There is little use of bi-partisan select and standing committees. There is almost no consultation with experts on draft bills. No public hearings. The bills just pop up on our tables at Parliament just days before the debate. At the so-called committee stage, there is in fact no committee; it is just another round of floor debates where questions and opinions are often greeted by more heckling.
For POTA, the Pakatan MPs were determined to record our objections to key problematic clauses of POTA in the Hansard. We mounted a strong challenge at the policy level and also at the committee stage debate. On my count, the debate went on for 12 hours.
What was also disappointing was the fact that the two MPs of Gerakan (part of BN) voted for POTA. One of Gerakan’s main pillars was its stance against ISA. But their two MPs voted for it.
Q. Were any BN MPs concerned about the POTA provisions?
In my opinion, overall no. Not from the content of their speeches. The BN MPs argued a simple line: we need these extensive powers to fight terrorists. And then they promised not to abuse it.
People ask me, can you trust their promises? Najib’s administration has so far arrested 150 under the Sedition Act within the space of a year. Others point to other examples of empty promises – the ISA. The ISA was created to fight communists by the British and UMNO-BN kept it on. Out of the 10,000 odd people arrested under it, the majority of detainees were in fact non-communists but political opponents of the government.
As far as I’m concerned, the MPs from BN failed to demonstrate any deep understanding or real concerns about human rights. They probably voted out of blind loyalty, and they voted as a bloc. I suspect a good many who did not take part in the debate are unaware of the real substantive issues. I was particularly upset with the senior members of the backbenchers – all the BN Tan Sris and Dato Seris – for they should know better. They should be the seniors defending the constitution. You shouldn’t be an MP for three or more terms and pretend that legislations such as POTA and the Sedition Act are okay and acceptable.
During the debate, we also tried another strategy. By pointing out obvious flaws in the drafting. But these guys must have some sort of shame deficit, they rammed the legislation through anyway; warts, flaws and all included. From their actions, I’ll say that the BN MPs also couldn’t care if the world laughed at how bad the drafting was.
Q. Do opposition MPs ever vote to support UMNO-BN legislation?
No, not that I can recall. In my two years as an MP, probably not even once. But we do not have a blind loyalty bloc vote policy, not in PKR and not as Pakatan Rakyat. We have room to agree to disagree. We are expected to think for ourselves, whilst bearing in mind our common policies and visions for Malaysia. These policies are set out in our Manifesto and also in our annual Alternative Budget.
For instance, 2 days ago, I debated on the matter of the Securities Commission bill. I praised the appointment of Ranjit Singh as Chairman. I saw this as an example of meritocracy. I said that the fact that the SC has financial independence is a big contributing factor to its success. I also said I had no problems with most of the proposed amendments. But, I asked for two changes. One to ensure that any external experts or advisors to an SC meeting shall first declare their interests and if they do have, then obviously they shouldn’t act as an expert. The second change I wanted, was that after declaring an interest in a matter, a member of the SC must not be in the meeting and must not vote. Nothing political about my reasonable suggestions. But the UMNO-BN bloc voted against my suggestions. In turn, I could not support the legislation without my changes. As such, supporting or opposing a legislation is not always a clear cut, black and white matter.
Q. So what about the Sedition Act – what are issues with this piece of legislation?
The amendments to the Sedition Act were put in at the very last minute and we were all caught by surprise. The bill was presented on our tables at 9am, two days before the debate. Two days! That’s an ambush. You can’t morally legislate such an important bill with two days' notice.
On the fateful day, I was first in Parliament at about 8.45 am. On my desk, staring back at me was the Sedition bill amendments. I took photos and WhatsApp the same to Pakatan MPs. There was a particularly nasty clause: the Najib administration wanted to disallow bail for anyone charged under this act. They sought to remove the discretion of judges in granting bail. They tried to transfer that discretionary power on bail to the attorney general. It was just so wrong on so many levels. YB Rafizi Ramli, who is facing 4 sedition investigations, was mildly shocked when I informed him of the clause.
This means that if you’re arrested by the police for sedition and if the attorney general is of the opinion that you are a threat, you will be detained in police lock-up until the trial is over. Effectively, you could be in jail until the trial completes in 2 to 4 years. UMNO-BN wanted to elevate the crime of sedition to a non-bailable offence. Do you know what crimes are not bailable? Kidnapping and murder. Come on, is criticising the government on the same league as murder? We immediately alerted the Bar Council, International Commission of Jurists and the United Nations on this issue.
My research officers and I then went into an emergency meeting with several MPs and started planning our next steps to try to stop the bill. YB Gobind Singh came up with a brilliant idea, arguing that the amendment to the Sedition Act is sub judice because the legality of the entire Sedition Act is currently under consideration of the Federal Court. To avoid sub judice, we asked UMNO-BN to at least defer the amendments until after a Federal Court makes a decision.
We then informed the three Chief Whips (PKR, DAP and PAS) of our plans and asked them to quickly contact the Speaker and the Minister to try to convince them to withdraw the amendment bill. In the meantime, we devised a strategy to buy more time for more bi-partisan discussions.
Several MPs approached the Sabah and Sarawak BN backbenchers. Apparently, we got support from some. To our surprise, Bung Mokhtar spoke against the bill. He is the wiliest of all BN backbenchers. For instance, last week he was sympathetic of “Sabah Sarawak Keluar Malaysia” (a Sabah and Sarawak secessionist group) and this week he called them “Orang Gila” (crazy people) and asked the police to arrest all of them. By nightfall, we heard that the Minister had agreed to withdraw the most onerous elements of the bill. To be safe, we nevertheless filed our own committee stage changes to the bill.
The next day, we were informed that the Najib administration had indeed removed the clause on “no bail” but they retained many more terms which are clearly abhorrent. I was particularly upset about their refusal to remove the clause on youthful and first-time offenders. The Najib administration pushed through a clause that says youthful offenders (aged 18-21 years) and first-time offenders cannot be shown any leniency by the courts. Therefore, they must serve a minimal jail term of 3 years up to 20 years for sedition, if found guilty.
Whereas POTA has been packaged as a bill against terrorists, the Sedition Act has no such pretence, it is clearly aimed against citizens who want the right to exercise reasonable free speech and or carry out peaceful rallies.
This amendment bill was pushed through at 2.30 am after some 12 hours of debate. I lost my temper with several UMNO leaders and berated them over declaring war on Malaysian youths. I reminded them that we were all 18 years old at one time, and we’ve all been rebellious over something. As such, youths should be given special dispensation and not face the full weight of the law. I asked them if they knew what they had just voted for, to which I got blank faces. I asked them if they had children or grandchildren and to think of them.
Q. Some people ask if this is the end of democracy in Malaysia (such as it is)? What do you say?
In my honest opinion, I’ll say it’s moving towards the end. We don’t have free mass media other than the internet. But we are used to living with that. However, when they pass draconian laws, I’ll say that we are 70% to the end. Thank God we still have some good judges and some professional policemen.
There is a joke going around in the halls of Parliament that PM Najib has finally fulfilled his “1 Malaysia” dream. SOSMA was introduced after the Lahad Datu incident – sending a strong message to the people of Sabah and Sarawak. Then, he introduced PCA or the Prevention of Crime Act – targeted at so-called triads, essentially sending a strong message to the Chinese community. With POTA, he sends another strong message to the Malays and the Indians. It is Najib’s “1 Malaysia” dream fulfilled, Malay, Chinese, Indian, Iban and Kadazan all living in fear, semua sama-sama akan kena.