Tough law still relevant

Tough law still relevant


It is a necessity for a law that permits the detention and supervision of persons, without them being charged in court, to be examined in Parliament periodically.

The public must be satisfied that the law is not being misused, that safeguards against abuse are in place, that those safeguards are actually used, and that the job of ensuring the safeguards falls on those who are impartial and who function independently of those implementing the law.

Protecting the innocent being as much a duty of justice as prosecuting the guilty, the public interest is best served when the need for that law is discussed and debated thoroughly. Parliament this week upheld the best traditions of public interest when it passed, but only after robust discussion, the Criminal Law (Temporary Provisions) Act (CLTPA).

The use of this Act, most recently against four suspected football match-fixers, occasioned some disquiet, but Second Minister for Home Affairs S. Iswaran replied that syndicated crimes such as this one are a genuine threat to public order.

The larger point was whether using the law continued to be justified long after the lawless times in the mid-1950s when it had been enacted. Although the law-and-order situation has improved vastly since then, it is reasonable to argue that this happy state of affairs is itself a result of the deterrent capability of laws, including the CLTPA.

Also, improvements notwithstanding, the pernicious activities of gangsters, drug traffickers and loan sharks have not been eradicated, making it important for the authorities to have recourse to legislation that can deter hardened criminals.

A critically important factor is that charging criminals in court, which is the Government's preferred course of action, depends on the willingness of witnesses to testify against the accused. Since criminals such as gangsters thrive on the public fear of reprisals, the CLTPA is necessary to ensure that they do not benefit from a culture of impunity.

Malaysia's experience is instructive. The repeal of its Emergency Ordinance in 2011 was followed by such a spike in violent crime that it has found it necessary to restore detention provisions in its laws.

The elaborate precautions taken against abuse in the administration of the CLTPA should set hearts at rest. The more regular release of detention statistics, promised in the House, will help.

In the final analysis, though, the very fact that the Act is temporary - being dependent on parliamentary renewal every five years - is a safeguard of the highest order. Parliamentary scrutiny obliges the authorities to show why they are justified in using a powerful law, instead of becoming dependent on it out of habit.

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