Malaysian leader Najib Razak is gearing up for early general elections with bold reforms to scrap two unpopular security laws and ease other civil rights, but critics warn the moves could be merely cosmetic.
The surprising policy changes announced late Thursday were the most significant reforms since the prime minister took office in April 2009 and are seen as an attempt to bolster support for his ruling coalition ahead of national polls widely expected next year.
"Many people will see the prime minister's announcement as a preparation for early general elections. It is part of his overall election strategy to regain support among the urban population," said James Chin, political science lecturer at Monash University in Malaysia.
Najib's National Front coalition saw a further slide in popularity 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 last month in Kuala Lumpur.
The coalition, in power since independence from British rule in 1957, suffered its worst electoral performance in 2008, when opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim's alliance won more than one-third of Parliament's seats amid public allegations of government corruption and racial discrimination.
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 Thursday in a nationally televised speech.
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 the fundamental rights of suspects are protected. He pledged that no individuals would be detained for their political ideologies.
Some 37 people are still held under the ISA and another 6,000 under the Emergency Ordinance.
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.
Critics who have long accused the government of using the laws to stifle dissent cautiously welcomed the announcement.
Amnesty International called it a "significant step forward for human rights in Malaysia."
Its Asia-Pacific director, Sam Zarifi, said the government must ensure that new security laws comply with international human rights standards. He also called for the removal of all barriers to free speech and peaceful assembly.
Chin, the lecturer, said the changes appeared cosmetic. He said the new security laws would still allow detention without trial, although limited, and while newspapers would no longer need to renew their licenses annually, the home minister could still cancel their permit at anytime.
The government still has other oppressive laws such as the Sedition Act that could put a stranglehold on freedom, he said.
Opposition lawmakers were skeptical that Najib's announcement would change anything.
"We shouldn't count the chickens yet," said opposition lawmaker Tony Pua. "We have yet to see the fine print. We've seen sufficient U-turns when Najib comes under pressure from right-wing groups, and we won't be surprised if the same happens again."