PETALING JAYA: Muhyiddin Yassin, who is now prime minister, was “reasonably progressive” and open to moves to reduce the numbers in prisons and detention centres when he was home minister under Pakatan Harapan, says former deputy defence minister Liew Chin Tong said today.
Since the Sheraton Move in early 2020, though, Liew said he did not know the status of these proposals and they have not yet borne fruit.
Liew said both forms of incarceration have been blamed for the rapid spread of Covid-19 in prisons and migrant centres.
Speaking during a webinar entitled “Covid-19: Seeking Solutions for Prisons & Refugees”, organised by G25 Malaysia and the Edunity Foundation, Liew said he had relayed his concerns about the overcrowding to Muhyiddin in December 2019 .
This came after he had visited prisons and spoken to officials about the difficulty they faced in containing the spread of tuberculosis.
“These officers told me privately that they had seen their fellow prison officers die of TB. When I texted Muhyiddin, who was on holiday at the time, he told me a committee was being set up to look at decriminalisation.
“He admitted to me that 70% of the prison population were there on drug-related cases. Many of them, who aren’t drug dealers, don’t really need to be in prison.”
Similarly, on the matter of refugees, who are still not officially recognised by Malaysia, he said Muhyiddin and then prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad were in favour of offering a “middle of the road” solution to afford them legal rights to work.
In a meeting on Rohingya refugees on Dec 4, 2019, which Muhyiddin also attended, Liew said the then home minister was in favour of providing them some form of documentation to allow them to work.
He hoped Muhiddin will pay “personal attention” to solve these outstanding issues.
‘Use emergency to enact new laws’
Sangeet Kaur Deo, a lawyer and member of the All Party Parliamentary Group for the Reform of All Places of Detention, said the Alor Setar prison was operating at 200% of its capacity. She said this was symptomatic of larger issues and reforms to drug laws were sorely needed.
In addition to the early parole system, which could be implemented immediately, she said it was time to reassess legislation as a long-term strategy to ensure minor offenders are not imprisoned.
She said putting them in jail exposed them to more serious criminals and put them at risk of committing offences again upon release.
“Our government had proposed to table the Drug and Substance Abuse Act, which was supposed to focus more on rehabilitation. Yet, nothing has happened and we have no news about it.
“The government must consider this an immediate priority to address the bigger issues in this country that are leading to the overcrowding of our prisons.”
She said legislative changes take time but said the executive branch has the power under the current state of emergency to implement laws quickly.
“In this time of emergency, isn’t the executive supposed to be in charge? Can’t they do this overnight?
“That was the whole basis for the argument to suspend Parliament in the first place so they can pass quicker legislation required to handle Covid-19. So this is their moment.”