Malaysia plans to abolish two unpopular security laws allowing detention without trial and relax other measures curbing the media and the right to free assembly, Prime Minister Najib Razak announced Thursday.
The policy changes are the boldest announced by Najib since he took the helm in April 2009 and are seen as a move to bolster support for his ruling coalition ahead of general elections, which are not due until 2013 but are widely expected next year.
Najib said heading toward a more open democracy was risky but crucial for his government's survival.
"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," Najib said in a nationally televised speech.
Critics who have long accused the government of using the security laws to stifle dissent cautiously welcomed the announcement but said they would have to wait to see what the measures are replaced with before assessing the reforms.
Lim Kit Siang, who heads the opposition Democratic Action Party, said he wondered if Najib's move was an election ploy.
"We see this as a victory of the people in demanding for greater democracy and respect of human rights, but the question is will he walk the talk?" Lim said.
Najib said the colonial-era Internal Security Act and the Emergency Ordinance, which allow indefinite detention without trial, would be abolished and replaced with new anti-terrorism laws that would ensure that fundamental rights of suspects are protected. He pledged that no individuals would be detained for their political ideologies.
Najib said police laws would also be amended to allow freedom of assembly according to international norms. The government will also do away with the need for annual printing and publishing licenses, giving more freedom to media groups, he said.
"It is time for Malaysians to move forward with new hope," he said. "Let there be no doubt that the Malaysia we are creating is a Malaysia which has a functional and inclusive democracy."
The prime minister's speech was to mark Friday's anniversary of the 1963 union of peninsula Malaysia with Sabah and Sarawak states on Borneo, six years after the country's independence from British rule.
Najib's National Front has been working to regain public support after suffering its worst performance in 2008 polls, when opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim's alliance wrested more than one-third of Parliament's seats amid public allegations of government corruption and racial discrimination.
The National Front's popularity recently took a dip after authorities arrested more than 1,600 demonstrators and used tear gas and water cannons against at least 20,000 people who marched for electoral reforms in Kuala Lumpur on July 9.
Syed Ibrahim Syed Noh, who heads the Abolish ISA Movement, asked if the two new laws to be introduced would also provide for detention without trial. He estimated there are still some 30 people held under the ISA and another 6,000 under the Emergency Ordinance, and called for their immediate release.