Singapore Straits Times 26 November 2011

Thousands of Malaysians, including lawyers and activists, plan to march to protest against the Peaceful Assembly Bill, as public disapproval against it mounts after its first tabling on Tuesday.

The Malaysian Bar Council will lead thousands of lawyers in a walk next Tuesday against the Bill, which the government says aims to make the staging of peaceful protests easier by dropping a requirement for police permits, among other things.

But opponents say the opposite is true: The Bill adds a raft of restrictions on the public’s right to assemble, they argue.

The protest march follows a rally to be held today at the KL Convention Centre and a candlelight vigil at the Dataran Merdeka field, which activists and opposition politicians are expected to attend.

The lawyers plan to walk several hundred metres from the Royal Lake Club to the Parliament building and deliver a memorandum to the government on the day the Bill is to be debated.

Bar Council president Lim Chee Wee said the Bill, which would replace some provisions of the Police Act, would make it even more difficult to organise public assemblies.

For instance, it would prohibit street protests and make it unlawful for anyone under 21 to organise assemblies and for anyone under 15 to take part.

And while there is no need for police permits, organisers now have to give the police 30 days’ notice before holding an assembly. The police can also reject the dates and venues proposed.

“These restrictive provisions in the Bill effectively render meaningless our constitutional guarantee, by constraining assembly to very limited circumstances,” Mr Lim said in a statement.

“This stands in stark contrast to the words of the Prime Minister in his speech on the eve of Malaysia Day 2011.”
Since Prime Minister Najib Razak made his September speech promising to do away with unpopular and outdated security laws, the government has repealed the Banishment Act and Restricted Residence Act, earning praise from most quarters. But the introduction of the Peaceful Assembly Bill has injected fresh scepticism about the government’s will to make political reforms.

The opposition has called for the Bill to be withdrawn. Mr Mohamad Sabu, deputy chief of Parti Islam SeMalaysia, said in a press conference that the party would file a court injunction to stop Parliament from passing the Bill.

Analysts said the controversy could cost the government votes in the next general election.

“The new Bill is obviously designed to protect the government, not to give more democratic space to the citizens,” said political commentator Kee Thuan Chye. “It is designed to prevent people from protesting against the government.”

Analysts added that the Bill would do little to help Mr Najib burnish his credentials as a reformist. He has sought to make economic and political reforms a hallmark of his premiership.

“The Bill is supposed to give people the right to peaceful assembly without layers of bureaucracy, but this seems to add to it,” said Mr Wan Saiful Wan Jan, chief executive of Ideas, a think-tank for democratic and economic issues.

Supporters of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition have backed the Bill as necessary to ensure political stability. Datuk Mukhriz Mahathir, Deputy Minister for International Trade and Industry, said it could help rebuild investor confidence after the large-scale public rallies like July’s march for electoral reforms, which saw 50,000 Malaysians take to the city centre amid a police crackdown.

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