A decision allowing Malaysia’s military chief to run the newly set up National Security Council underscores the government’s seriousness in combating the terrorism threat, officials say, but some experts believe the move violates the constitution and could result in human rights and other abuses.
In a surprise announcement last week, Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said Malaysian Armed Forces chief Zulkifeli Mohd Zin had taken over as National Security Council director-general as part of tough new security legislation that came into force about two weeks earlier.
Prime Minister Najib Razak, facing resignation calls after being linked to a multi-million dollar corruption scandal, had pushed the National Security Council Act through parliament in December. After legislative approval, the bill did not get the customary royal assent from Malaysia’s king, who had asked for some changes.
The legislation, among other objectives, enables the government to declare virtual martial law in areas deemed to be under “security threat.”
Appointing General Zulkifeli to run a civilian government department may be unconstitutional, Malaysia’s civil liberty lawyer Andrew Khoo said, arguing that military officers came under the jurisdiction of the Armed Forces Council and could not take over duties of civil servants who are administered by the Public Services Commission.
“I think the appointment may be unconstitutional because he is the member of armed forces and now he is being asked to head something that is part of the public services commission, so he is moving from the jurisdiction of one commission to another,” Khoo told BenarNews.
He said if the chief of armed forces took the post, he should take leave of absence from his current position.
“He cannot be a director general of the national security council and chief of defense forces at the same time, I don’t think that is possible.”
Mohamad Imran Abdul Hamid, a former admiral in the Royal Malaysian Navy and now an opposition lawmaker, said Najib, as chairman of the National Security Council, had usurped the duties of the king, who is the supreme commander of the Armed Forces under the country’s constitution.
“The prime minister has powers beyond of the king as he can instruct the armed forces chief, who is the director general [of the National Security Council] to mobilize forces and to enforce orders in a security area,” he told BenarNews.
New law allows PM to bypass king
Before the new law came into effect, any declaration of a state of emergency had to receive the consent of the king, according to Mohamad Imran.
He said Najib could now direct the military chief to take any actions without referring to the Malaysian Armed Forces Council.
Under the new powers, the National Security Council essentially can suspend civil liberties in designated “security areas,” giving the military sweeping powers of search, seizure and arrest.
If they are operating in areas deemed “unsafe,” they have a “license to kill,” Mohamad Imran said.
“It means that if a soldier shoots dead a civilian who violates a curfew or other restrictions, the soldier cannot be charged or face any action under the law as the soldier is protected under the National Security Council,” he said.
Najib and other top officials have defended the law as necessary to combat terrorism.
Malaysia and other countries in Southeast Asia have voiced fears that the influence of extremist group Islamic State is growing in the region and poses a national security threat.
Since 2013, Malaysian authorities have arrested at least 230 suspected IS members and have warned that Malaysians returning from combat stints in Syria or Iraq could launch terrorist attacks at home. At least 72 alleged IS members have been charged in court.
In late June, Malaysia suffered its first IS-claimed terrorist attack when a grenade was thrown outside a nightclub near Kuala Lumpur, injuring several people who were watching a football match on television.
Government defends appointment
Defense Minister Hishammuddin Hussein defended the appointment of Zulkifeli, saying it reflected Malaysia’s seriousness in combating the IS threat.
“We hope Zulkifeli’s appointment can help us to fight this new threat,” Bernama news agency quoted him as saying. “Don’t take this matter lightly … nevertheless, I feel relieved that we have established a sense of urgency in every action we take.”
Ahmad Marthada Mohamed, dean of law, government and international studies at the Universiti Utara Malaysia, agreed with Hishammuddin.
Zulkifeli’s appointment is an “ideal choice due to the threat from IS, which is spreading its presence in Southeast Asia with its own cells” and own interpretation of Islam, he said.
“In dealing with such an external threat, he will be able to coordinate all intelligence to protect the country from terror threats from IS and [the Southern Philippines-based] Abu Sayyaf group,” Ahmad Marthada said.
Universiti Teknologi Malaysia (UTM) analyst Azmi Hassan said Zulkifeli’s “background on security” would enable him to play a key role in the National Security Council.
Najib’s critics fear he will use the new powers to further stifle opposition and hold on to power.
The U.N. human rights office had said it was gravely concerned that the law may encourage human rights violations and lead to unjust restrictions on free speech and assembly.
Najib has faced calls to resign for more than a year over a corruption scandal involving state investment fund 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB), which he founded in 2009. It is being investigated in several countries including the U.S., Switzerland and Singapore.
Najib has denied wrongdoing or taking money for personal gain over the 1MDB affair.
Last month the U.S. Justice Department initiated moves to seize more than U.S. $1 billion in assets which it believed were bought with funds stolen from 1MDB, including by a person identified only as “Malaysian Official 1.” U.S. sources have identified to several media groups that the official was Najib.
The US move has fueled expectations of more anti-Najib protests which the authorities could suppress by using the new security law, rights groups say.
Hata Wahari contributed to this report.