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Doubts as Malaysia dumps the ISA
Stephanie March reports on Malaysia's controversial new security legislation.

First to Malaysia where prime minster Najib Razak is clearing the decks in preparation for an early election.

In the past few days, parliament's repealed the long standing Internal Security Act.

The Act, a hangover from the days of the communist insurgency, gave the police draconian powers to arrest and detain people, and its repeal was a promise made after street protests a year ago.

But critics argue the new security legislation replacing it is not much better.

Stephanie March reports.
KHAIRY JAMALUDDIN, UMNO YOUTH: It's actually monumental piece of legislation ending decades long legacy of the Internal Security Act.

PREMESH CHANDRAN, MALAYSIAKINI NEWS WEBSITE: They're responding to the outcry for changes in the political scene over the last 20 years, this momentum has been building up for many, many years.

STEPHANIE MARCH, REPORTER: The battle for greater civil liberties in Malaysia has a long and painful history.

(Footage of protests plays)

Created 50 years ago, civil liberties groups see the Internal Security Act as one of the country's most oppressive pieces of legislation.

It allowed for people to be detained indefinitely without trial in some cases to target political dissidents.

Last year the Government announced it was time for the Act to go.

JOHN SIFTON, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH: It's important to acknowledge that the repeal of the ISA is a huge step for Malaysia, a law that's been on the books for half a century. But with that said, there's some very, very serious concerns about the speed and the content of the laws that are being put in place to replace its provisions.

STEPHANIE MARCH: Under the new law police won't be able to detain people indefinitely without trial but they will be able to hold them for 28 days before charging or releasing them.

(Footage of protest)

People found not guilty of a crime will be able to be kept in prison until all avenues of appeal are exhausted. The laws also allow for wire tapping and electronic monitoring of suspects.

KHAIRY JAMALUDDIN: I believe that the new legislation in fact delivers on the promise of the prime minister to respect the civil liberties of Malaysians, yet at the same time guarantee the security of our country.

PREMESH CHANDRAN: It's long overdue, again, after a very long and extensive campaign. And although they have been some objections and some provisions within the new law, and obviously this new law can be improved. By and large the public is seeing it as a victory.

STEPHANIE MARCH: Despite being re-elected at the 2008 elections, the government had one of the worst results in the coalition's history, losing the two-thirds majority it held for almost 50 years.

It's since been trying to reinvent itself as a reforming power to broaden its support and attract the vote of middle Malaysia.

KHAIRY JAMALUDDIN: I think the promises were made on a broad based platform to ensure that this government does not only have the economic wellbeing of its citizens as a priority, but also the concerns of governance, the concerns of civil liberties are equally important to this government.

STEPHANIE MARCH: Elections don't have to be held until 2013 but it's widely thought the prime minister will capitalise on the passing of the new security legislation.

KHAIRY JAMALUDDIN: Once these promises have been delivered upon, the PM will be looking for the right time to call the elections. As far as the Party's concerned, once these promises are acted upon and delivered we are ready to face the general elections at any time.

STEPHANIE MARCH: The government may think this is a good time to go to the polls. But many in the electorate do not.

SONIA RANDHAWA, BERSIH CIVIL RIGHTS GROUP: The Malaysian government has not come far enough in reforming the electoral system.

(Footage of protests)

STEPHANIE MARCH: Last year thousands of Malaysians took to the streets demanding electoral reform. Security forces were criticised for being too heavy-handed and the government's popularity suffered.

The rally was led by the civil rights group Bersih.

SONIA RANDHAWA: We're getting report of voters, for example of the age of 122-years-old. People born in born in 1853 are turning up to vote. This doesn't seem indicative of an electoral role that has been cleaned up.

STEPHANIE MARCH: And while the government may say it's undergone a dramatic transformation it will soon be up to the voters who'll decide if it's come far enough.

PREMESH CHANDRAN: I think that the fear has had a big impact on Malaysia. We've seen the changes in the Middle East, more recently we've seen the changes in Burma, which is very surprising. And the feeling among the population is these countries have the courage to make a change, then definitely Malaysia should push on, extremely fast, to create a good democracy, a level democracy.
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