SEA lawmakers call on Malaysia’s Parliament to be allowed to sit during state of emergency

Southeast Asian lawmakers have urged the Malaysian King, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, and the Prime Minister to convene parliament as soon as possible, as they expressed concern over the excessively broad powers handed to Malaysian authorities under the current state of emergency.

In the sign-on statement on Tuesday (16 Feb), the 89 former and current democratically-elected parliamentarians from six countries also called on the Speaker of the House of Representatives to ensure that parliamentary committees are activated and that they meet regularly.

In particular, the lawmakers highlighted the far-reaching and unchecked powers of officials under the Emergency (Essential Powers) Ordinance 2021, including additional powers for the armed forces, the suspension of parliament and state assembly sittings, the postponement of elections, and legal immunity for authorities’ acts conducted in “good faith”.

“These measures flout international standards, severely undermine democratic processes, and foster an environment ripe for potential abuse of power,” ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) said.

The organisation added that under international law, emergency measures “must be necessary and proportionate in achieving the desired results, temporary, applied in a non-discriminatory manner, and subject to review”.

Tom Villarin, a board member of APHR, said that so many lawmakers from across the region have spoken out against this, which shows the level of regional concern over the emergency’s impact on parliamentary democracy in Malaysia, and the possible long-lasting implications this could have on the lives of its people.

“Malaysia’s state of emergency has not only concentrated excessively on the broad power in the executive, but also removed any real oversight, leaving the door wide open for rights abuses,” he asserted.

Mr Villarin, who is also a former Philippine Member of Parliament (MP), opined that pandemic-related measures adopted in other Southeast Asian countries have increasingly restricted human rights, hence adequate safeguards must be put in place.

He also stressed that while it is a priority for the government to tackle COVID-19, it is crucial that such responses take on a human rights-based approach and respect the rule of law.

“Prime Minister Muhyiddin’s back-door government has remained unstable since taking over last year, and this latest move appears as a desperate attempt to cling to power, rather than effectively tackling a health crisis,” said Mr Villarin.

“This is not the time to mute lawmakers. In times of a health crisis, it is even more important that parliament can function effectively to review the government’s actions and policies, including those in response to the pandemic. What the world needs now is more transparency and accountability, not governments shielded from public scrutiny,” he added.

The Malaysian King declared a nationwide state of emergency from 12 January until 1 August amid a rise in COVID-19 cases.

APHR highlighted how the Malaysian parliament has previously faced restrictions due to the pandemic.

In November 2020, the House of Representatives adopted COVID-19 prevention measures, which included shortened sitting hours and proceedings, and a maximum of 80 MPs in the plenary at any one time.

The March-April parliamentary sitting in 2020 was also delayed and reduced to a one-day sitting in May, without the possibility of debates.

APHR also took note of several lawsuits which have been filed in relation to the emergency, including a public interest litigation brought by civil society organisations to review, amongst others, the suspension of parliament.

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