KUALA LUMPUR, Malaysia—A push by Malaysia’s top law-enforcement official to use a British colonial-era punishment on people who reveal state secrets is dividing the government and sparking concerns in civil society.
Malaysia already administers the punishment—caning—to thousands of people a year who are convicted of crimes such as drug trafficking, rape, robbery and firearms possession. Human-rights groups and others deplore the practice, in which prisoners are whipped with a rattan stick, as inhumane. The government says it reduces recidivism; it hasn’t provided statistics to support that.
Now, as Prime Minister Najib Razak’s administration tries to contain a graft scandal at a state investment fund, his attorney general is proposing to also use caning on people found guilty of violating Malaysia’s Official Secrets Act. Under the act, officials can declare any document or information to be secret, restricted or classified. The government has said it suspects secret documents related to the investment fund were leaked.
Attorney General Mohamed Apandi Ali wants to expand the act to raise the penalties for breaking secrecy laws to life imprisonment, versus the current one-to-seven years in prison, and to cover journalists and editors who decline to disclose sources. But another of his proposals, to include caning as an additional punishment, has drawn the most scrutiny.
To cane people for leaking state secrets is “heavy-handed and nothing short of barbaric,” said Wong Chen, an opposition Parliament member.
Any change to the law would require approval of Parliament, which on Monday will begin a brief period of addressing new bills and amendments. Mr. Najib’s cabinet is divided over whether to adopt the recommendations, a cabinet member said. Among those voicing support include Azalina Othman Said, a cabinet minister.
Mr. Apandi, in explaining his proposal to the Sin Chew Daily newspaper last month, said: “In certain countries, leaking official secrets is very serious offense. In China for instance, one could be sentenced to death.” He added: “We might prosecute journalists who refuse to disclose their sources … Rights to information is not a right prescribed under the constitution.”
Some say the proposal alone risks having a chilling effect on civil society and that the secrets act, even in its current form, stifles dissent and reduces transparency in government dealings.
“It’s a sad day for us when we become enemies that need to be punished for keeping the government honest and accountable,” said Jahabar Sadiq, former editor of the Malaysian Insider news site.
Shamini Darshni, executive director of Amnesty International Malaysia, said: “The proposal to introduce life imprisonment and 10 strokes of the cane to the Official Secrets Act is a worrying trend of repressive legislation aimed at clamping down on civil liberties in Malaysia.
Prime Minister Najib has come under intense political pressure since The Wall Street Journal reported last year that government investigators had found hundreds of millions of dollars had entered his personal bank accounts via banks, companies and other entities linked to 1MDB. The investigation didn’t name the origination of the funds or say what happened to the money.
Mr. Najib, 62 years old, has denied wrongdoing or taking money for personal gain. The 1MDB fund also has denied wrongdoing, and has said it is cooperating with investigations. Malaysia’s attorney general said the funds were a legal political donation from Saudi Arabia and that most of the money was returned.
In recent months, Mr. Najib’s government has taken measures to limit public scrutiny of the fund. His ruling party last month suspended a deputy president who had called to step up inquiries into the fund, saying the deputy failed to assist Mr. Najib, the party president.
Malaysia’s auditor general this month invoked the Official Secrets Act for a report about the fund before it was submitted to a parliamentary panel, whose chief said the move was intended to deter any leaks.
Meanwhile, the media regulator sometimes blocks websites of news groups that report on the fund scandal, including the Malaysian Insider and the Sarawak Report, saying they published unverified information that risks confusing the public. Both deny the allegation.
“Public interest, and ultimately national interests, would be better served by allowing public access to information through a Freedom of Information Act to replace the Official Secrets Act,” said the Institute of Journalists Malaysia, an advocacy group.
Caning was introduced to Malaysia by the British colonial authorities in the 19th century and continued after the country’s 1957 independence. Judicial corporal punishment remains a part of Malaysia’s penal system, as it is in Singapore and Brunei.
That was of great dismay to Low Siew Meng, who endured 20 cane strikes in 2009 at the end of his nearly seven-year prison term on a drug conviction. He recently recalled guards at Kajang Prison, near the capital here, tying his hands and legs to a wooden A-frame brace. His buttocks bared, Mr. Low said he heard a rattan cane whistling through the air, followed by searing pain.|
“I gripped the wooden frame so hard that for two weeks I couldn’t raise my right arm,” Mr. Low said. “I could not sit for about three months.”
Now 49 years old, Mr. Low added, “Today, the wounds are all healed, but the scars remain.”