KUALA LUMPUR (Reuters) - Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak repealed two controversial security laws and lifted licensing curbs on the media on Thursday, as he sought to bolster his flagging popularity ahead of likely snap polls early next year.
The changes are part of long-promised political reforms and come amid growing public anger at what is viewed as the authorities’ reluctance to make good on pledges to overhaul economic and government policy.
In a televised speech ahead of the 48th anniversary of the country’s independence, Najib abolished the Internal Security Act and Emergency Ordinance, which allow for indefinite detention without trial. They would be replaced by two news laws for use mainly against suspected militants.
The country’s strict media law will also be amended to allow a one-time licensing of media outlets instead of annual renewals which critics say the government has used to threaten newspapers against publishing dissenting views.
Other laws which restrict civil liberties would be reviewed, and Najib pledged that the government would not detain any individuals merely on the basis of their political ideology.
“Many will question whether I am moving too far, too fast. Some will say that the reforms should only be carried out in small steps, or not at all,” Najib, flanked by his cabinet members, said in the address.
“To them I say, if a reform is the right thing to do, now is the right time to do it.”
Malaysia’s strict security laws, a relic of British colonial rule, were used to stem a Communist insurgency in the 1960s but had become little more than a government tool to stifle dissent, say critics.
The changes, which are part of reforms that Najib promised when he took office in 2009, will be tabled in parliament ahead of an expected general election.
Najib has also pledged to enact market friendly economic reforms and cut the budget deficit but he has also slowed down on a rollback of fuel subsidies and delayed the implementation of a Goods and Service tax to avoid sparking a voter backlash.
Najib has also softened his stance on the reform of a controversial pro-ethnic Malay majority affirmative action policy which critics say has created a patronage-ridden economy, for fear of risking the anger of Malay conservatives.
Conservatives, including some groups backed by members of his party, had also called for the Internal Security Act to be retained for use against political dissidents.
“There may be short-term pain for me politically, but in the long-term the changes I am announcing tonight will ensure a brighter, more prosperous future for all Malaysians,” said Najib.
The next general election is not due until 2013 but Najib is likely to call one in the next 6 months amid growing uncertainty about the global economic outlook, analysts say.
Despite making record gains in a 2008 general election, the opposition led by former deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim has struggled to build on that momentum, and is plagued by infighting and distracted by Anwar’s protracted trial on sodomy charges, which he denies.
But analysts say Najib’s own troubles run deep and Thursday’s announcement may not be enough to reverse the ruling coalition’s 2008 poll losses, which he needs to do to remain firmly in power.
“This will be attractive to the more educated and critical classes, typically urban professionals and minority non-Malays, but this group will also look to see whether or not this will be translated into credible change,” said Ibrahim Suffian, director of the independent polling outfit the Merdeka Center.
A big street protest in July, attended by young members of the middle class angered over the slow pace of reforms, exposed a groundswell of anger that has driven Najib’s approval ratings down from 72 percent in May last year to 56 percent last month.
Najib is also struggling to stem religious tension over the use of the word “Allah” by Christians which was exacerbated by a raid on a church by Muslim authorities last month.
“Najib is defining his agenda for political reform, but the devil will be in the details in whether he can translate these promises into concrete implementation,” said Bridget Welsh, a Malaysia specialist at Singapore Management University.
“Institutions like the police and judiciary are also still criticized as not being independent so while he’s embraced political reforms he has touched only the surface of it,” said Welsh.
Editing by Liau Y-Sing and Robert Birsel