KUALA LUMPUR: New legislation came into force on Monday (Aug 1) that grants sweeping powers to Malaysia's National Security Council, which is chaired by the prime minister.
Local authorities have said the National Security Council (NSC) Act is a must-have to deal with terror threats, but human rights activists fear it gives security forces and the prime minister too much power.
Since 2013, around 230 people have been arrested in Malaysia for links to Islamic State. Police said several terror plots have been foiled since then too. But in June, one plot was successful. Police said individuals linked to Islamic State were behind a grenade that went off at a nightspot in Puchong on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, injuring eight people.
"In our region, Jakarta was hit in January and I have said repeatedly that we are far from immune to this danger in Malaysia," said Prime Minister Najib Razak. "This is why the government passed the Security Offenses (Special Measures) Act or SOSMA, the Special measures against Terrorism in Foreign Countries Act, the Prevention of Terrorism Act, and the National Security Council Act.
"We were criticised for passing some of these laws. But my government will never apologise for placing the safety and security of the Malaysian people first."
Among those powers conferred to the council is the ability to take charge of security forces and declare security areas for up to six months within which authorities can arrest, search or seize without warrants.
Activists fear the Act allows for human rights abuse and gives authorities too much unchecked power. For instance, under the Act, investigators can dispense with formal inquests into killings by security forces in designated security areas.
There are questions too about what would constitute a threat to national security or justify the declaration of a security area.
The Sogo shopping complex at Jalan Tunku Abdul Rahman is where protests have been held in the past and where more may be planned soon. Malaysia's police chief was asked it would be considered a security threat if people rallied there, demanding the prime minister's resignation.
"I don't see any relevance between the NSC Act and the people who want to rally," said Inspector-General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar. "I don't see it's going to be used for that. This is for national security, anything that threatens national security."
Opposition coalition Pakatan Harapan has also expressed disapproval of the NSC Act, issuing a statement on Monday calling it a "draconian measure".
"Subject to his whims and fancies, Najib Razak can now declare any area a 'security area' for six months at a time, a period of which he is authorised to renew indefinitely," its presidential council said.
It added that the declaration of the security areas "effectively resurrects provisions of the Internal Security Act - repealed in 2012 - and usurps the powers belonging exclusively" to the Malaysian king.
Ahead of the Act's enforcement, Mr Najib sought to allay some of concerns, stating that parliament would have oversight of the declaration of any security area. He also said the Act is not the same as a declaration of national emergency, a right that remains with the King of Malaysia.