Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak extended his policing powers with a tough new security law that took effect Monday, spurring concerns over civil liberties.
The law, which Najib said was needed to combat terrorism, was pushed through on the final day of the parliamentary session in December, creating a National Security Council with broad powers to create "security areas" where police can conduct searches without warrants and impose curfews. It also eliminated the need to conduct public inquests into shootings by police in the security zones and gave the new security council the ability to declare emergency rule.
The security council, which will include the prime minister and be majority controlled by members of his political party, won't be required to provide explanations or justifications for its decisions.
That represented a major expansion of powers for Najib, who has been embroiled in a scandal over funds allegedly funneled away from Malaysian state wealth investment fund 1MDB.
Ei Sun Oh, who was political secretary to the Malaysian prime minister's office from 2009-2011, during Najib's tenure, told CNBC in an email interview that it wasn't clear how far the government's new discretionary powers could be pushed.
"Under the current oppressive political climate, there is legitimate fear that the law may be abused to stifle dissents, such as expressed in peaceful street protests which should have been a fundamental right to assemble," said Oh, who is currently an adjunct senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore.
Others were more specifically concerned about the fresh powers that the law gave to Najib, who has been prime minister since 2009.
"A lot of people in Malaysia don't trust Najib. It gives him too much power," noted James Chin, director of the Asia Institute at the University of Tasmania. "This gives the prime minister the powers of the king. Previously only the king had [this] authority."
Not only does the law not allow for judicial review of the security council's rulings, politicians on the council would be selected solely from the country's ruling party and would outnumber administrators such as police chiefs, Chin noted.
"There's no way anyone can overrule the prime minister. Effectively, he will get what he wants," Chin said. "It sends a strong signal to the population of Malaysia and also the opposition that he's all-powerful."
Chin noted that the law didn't define what constituted a national security threat, which could enable the prime minister to use small incidents to impose emergency rule. Chin was particularly concerned about whether areas currently under opposition party rule, such as Penang, might be targeted.