Draconian laws and the legislative process

THERE is a memorable scene in the film Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, the last episode of the Star Wars prequel trilogy.

In the scene, Senator Palpatine, the main antagonist of the films, announces the reorganisation of the Galactic Senate into the Galactic Empire, making himself the Emperor.

The senators of the Galactic Senate greet Emperor Palpatine’s ascension to power with applause, prompting Senator Padmé Amidala, who would later become the mother of twin siblings Luke and Leia, to remark: “This is how liberty dies; with thunderous applause.”

Amidala could see the irony of how a democratic institution such as the Galactic Senate, at a time of fear and uncertainty, readily and happily agreed to give away freedoms.

The Galactic Senate’s reaction was in response to what it thought was a rebellion by the Jedi order. In actual fact, it was Palpatine and Anakin Skywalker (who later became Darth Vader) who attacked the Jedi under the pretext of quelling a rebellion. 

Although this is a scene from a science fiction movie, it is a reminder of how the legislative process in a democracy can still result in draconian rule.

Democracy is not a political system in which the majority may do as it pleases. Even though the party that is able to control the legislature can usually enact laws easily, it does not mean that civil liberties and the rights and interests of minorities can be ignored, restricted arbitrarily or violated. There is a common misconception that democracy is the concept whereby the wishes of the majority take precedence over that of the minority. This is wrong.

Bills tabled in the legislature become law if approved by the majority of members. But that does not mean the law is just or fair. There are many laws approved by the majority that are unjust, unconstitutional or contrary to human rights.

The amendments to the Sedition Act, the amendments to the Prevention of Crime Act, the Prevention of Terrorism Act and the National Security Council are just some examples of laws which were passed by Parliament, through the legislative process, but have been criticised as draconian or contrary to the rule of law. Unfortunately, there are many other examples of such laws in Malaysia.

That is why the various institutions of the state play an important role as checks and balances to each other. The concept of separation of powers ensures that power is not given to just one branch of the state. Separation of powers ensures that state bodies checks and balance each other.

In Parliament, MPs must ensure that proposed laws adhere to the principles of the rule of law, justice, human rights and constitutionalism. This is also why debates in Parliament are so very important, as this is when Bills must be scrutinised in detail. Enough time must be given for debates to take place.

When MPs think that their party orders are more important than their responsibilities to their constituents as parliamentarians, that is when draconian bills become laws.

Although the legislature is empowered to enact laws, the judiciary is given the power to review and determine the validity of the laws.

Certainly, the system is not perfect. But if everyone, be it the Government, MPs or judges, understand their role in the constitutional framework and carry out their responsibilities independently, the system can and will function effectively.

If not, the legislative process will become a process to legitimise anti-democratic laws, and worse, perpetrate tyranny.

The Galactic Senate allowed Palpatine to seize power right under its nose.

Remember the words of French philosopher Montesquieu: “There is no greater tyranny that that which perpetrated under the shield of the law and in the name justice.”

> The views expressed are entirely the writer's own.


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