Do we need a law for peaceful assembly?

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The Bill aimed at allowing peaceful assembly – a right guaranteed by the Constitution – ends up restricting further whatever public space that is left for public dissent and assembly, observes Christopher Chong.

The government is in the midst of tabling the Peaceful Assembly bill in the Parliament which is being promoted as part of the slew of reforms which the Prime Minister has promised to Malaysians. At first glance, it would seem that the government is finally bowing to public pressure to allow for space for public dissent and assembly.

On closer scrutiny, however, the bill does not fulfil the government’s pledge of allowing ordinary Malaysians to voice their dissent publicly through peaceful assembly. Among the provisions in the bill which are cause for concern are:

  1. 30 days’ advance notice for assemblies except for those done in designated areas as defined by the home minister;
  2. after notification, the assemblies can proceed unless there are objections by the police;
  3. no street protests are allowed;
  4. a police officer is allowed ‘to take such measures he/she deems necessary’ to ensure compliance;
  5. the police are allowed to fine organisers up to RM10000 if no advance notice of a planned assembly is given to the police;
  6. the police are allowed to fine those arrested up to RM20000.

In short, if ordinary Malaysians want to organise a peaceful assembly, they must still get permission from the authorities with the caveat that the latter can refuse such a request. And if the former still persist on assembling peacefully in a public space, the police have the right to take whatever steps deemed necessary to stop such an “illegal” public assembly.

The irony here is that the proposed law which is aimed at allowing peaceful assembly – a right that is guaranteed by the Constitution – ends up restricting further whatever public space that is left for public dissent and assembly. This does not bode well for promoting democracy in our nation.

Malaysians need to look carefully at the provisions in this bill and ask ourselves, do we really need such a law that seeks to regulate the very right enshrined in the Constitution? More importantly, we must demand that government retract this bill in its current form and revise it based on the feedback from the public.

Dr Christopher Chong, an Aliran member, is a regular contributor to TA Online

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