Activists show placards during a protest against the Internal Security Act (ISA) outside the parliament house in Kuala Lumpur April 9, 2012. ISA is a security law that allows detention without trial. (Photo: Reuters)
Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak announced a new security law on Tuesday that ends indefinite police detention of suspects, fulfilling a pledge to abolish colonial-era legislation that has long been used to stifle political dissent.
The proposal, likely to be passed by the government-controlled parliament, is Najib's latest move aimed at winning over middle-class, urban voters ahead of what is expected to be a closely fought election that he could call in weeks.
"This is a historic day for Malaysia and another major step forward on the road to reform," Najib said in a statement, describing the new law as a balance between protecting national security and ensuring civil liberties.
Under the Security Offences Bill sent to parliament on Tuesday, police can detain a person suspected of "terrorism or security" offences for up to 28 days.
The bill also introduces "full judicial oversight" to increase police accountability and states that no one can be arrested "on the basis of their political affiliation".
It replaces a 1960 Internal Security Act (ISA) that was originally aimed at fighting a communist insurgency but which became a symbol of the government's authoritarian tendencies.
The ISA has been used to arrest opposition leaders and social activists, stifling dissent against the Barisan Nasional (National Front) coalition that has ruled the Southeast Asian country since independence from Britain in 1957.
About 50 people were being held under the law at the end of 2010, Malaysian human rights groups estimate.
The three-party opposition has criticised security reforms first announced by Najib last year as being more form than substance, pointing to a new "Peaceful Assembly" bill that they say in some ways marks a step backwards.
The bill's ban on street protests and participation by citizens under 21 years old restricts the right to peaceful assembly, a group of U.N. human rights experts said.
Opposition leaders were not available for comment.
Phil Robertson, the deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch, said the bill marked major progress in some areas such as giving detainees quick access to a lawyer and informing their family immediately.
But he said there were worrying aspects of the law, such as a section granting police and public prosecutors wide powers to intercept communications if they suspect a security offence.
"Given the track record of Malaysian police, this grant of broad interception for communications is something that is going to make all thinking people in Malaysia quite worried," he said.
Conservatives within the dominant United Malays National Organisation (UMNO) have expressed concern over repealing the tough security laws, saying it risked causing instability.
Najib, a consummate UMNO insider whose father was prime minister, has cast himself as a reformer as he aims to stop the opposition from building on election gains in 2008 that deprived the coalition of a two-thirds majority for the first time.
An election must be held by next April, but Najib is widely expected to call it earlier as he tries to capitalise on a relatively strong economy and the feel-good factor from recent government hand-outs to poorer families.
Calling it Malaysia's biggest shake-up since independence, Najib announced the abolition of the ISA last September as the centre of a raft of reforms, including a loosening of laws on public gatherings and the media.
He also repealed an Emergency Ordinance created in 1969 in the wake of race riots that shook ties between the country's majority ethnic Malays and minority ethnic Chinese and Indians.
The announcements followed the government's clumsy handling of a protest for electoral reform that ended in violence when police turned water cannon and tear gas on demonstrators.