Malaysia’s lower house of Parliament passed a government proposal Thursday that decriminalizes street demonstrations, fulfilling a reform promise made by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad’s administration.
The house passed the amendment to the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012 by a simple voice vote.
“The amendment is needed to give room to the people, their rights to freedom of expression and peaceful assembly,” Home Minister Muhyiddin Yassin said in a speech when tabling the bill at the House of Representatives.
Previously, the act banned any assembly in the form of a “street protest,” defined as marching from one location to protest or advance a cause, while allowing public gatherings. Participating in a street protest was punishable with a maximum fine of 10,000 ringgit (about $2,400).
Muhyiddin said there are other laws such as the Penal Code that can be applied if protestors turn violent or commit other offences.
The amendment also allows an organizer to notify the police seven days in advance from the date of the rally, down from the previous 10 day.
A new provision is added enabling the police to issue a fine of not more than 5,000 ringgit to those who fail to comply with the notice requirement or break the conditions set by the police for the rally.
When the Peaceful Assembly Act was first tabled in the Parliament eight years ago by the previous government led by former Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak’s National Front coalition, rights groups had slammed it for being restrictive because of the ban on street protests. The then opposition staged a walk-out, foregoing their right to vote.
Anti-government street protests back then had sometimes been met with tear gas and water cannon, with protestors being arrested.
After Mahathir’s alliance defeated the National Front in last year’s general election, it formed a committee to look into what it deemed “draconian laws” including the Peaceful Assembly Act.