The Malaysian social and alternative media sphere is describing an impending ‘National Harmony Act,’ as “Orwellian” and “draconian.”
Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak announced that Malaysia's Sedition Act of 1948 is to be repealed, and replaced with the National Harmony Act (NHA.)
The Sedition Act, a hangover from Malaysia's era of colonial rule, was originally introduced to quell opposition against the British, but is infamous for its vague definitions and use by the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition to silence political opposition.
Rather than celebration, there is widespread concern that the new National Harmony Act will not prove any better than its predecessor. Barisan Nasional has dismantled several existing laws only to replace them with barely improved or even worse versions. For example the Internal Security Act, the Peaceful Assembly Act and the Evidence Act amendments.
Many Malaysian netizens are concerned that the NHA is yet another example of double-talk.
Mustafa K. Anuar, writing for Aliran describes it as a ‘Seduction Act in the offing’, identifying the widespread cynicism towards the new Act as predictable:
In the recent past, the promise of a repeal of certain undemocratic laws such as the equally draconian Internal Security Act turned out to be a nightmare for Malaysians, especially human rights activists, as the replacements are either the same or even worse than the laws they replaced.
Phil Robertson, the deputy director Human Rights Watch's Asia division, also summed up this worrying legislative trend in the alternative media website The Malaysian Insider:
He said “the government should realise that change for change’s sake is not enough”, adding that the drafting of replacement laws “has gone on behind closed doors with little input from civil society.”
As reported by Malaysiakini (paywall-protected site), Catholic Bishop Dr Paul Tan Chee Ing (as well as Lim Chee Wee, head of the Malaysian Bar Council) has suggested that the government should just repeal the Sedition Act, rather than replace it with more legislation prone to selective enforcement:
“We have seen a politician or two and some religious leaders raise the bogey of Christian proselytisation of Muslims and proffer no substantive proof in support and yet they have not been hauled up for seditious speech.
“Don't replace obsolete laws with newfangled ones, especially if you cannot be counted on to enforce them with equity,” he contended.
Commenters on the Malaysiakini article seem to agree:
Hang Babeuf: Of course, the National Harmony Act provokes scepticism. Just look at the name.
Absalom: If you want national harmony, you don't need an Act, for that's all it is, an act.
Ez24get: National Harmony Act – harmony for whom? Harmony for the corrupt BN as nobody could question or take away their gravy train?
Similar sentiments are expressed in yet another Malaysiakini commenter round-up:
Kee Thuan Chye: The Sedition Act should be repealed, not put into a new wine bottle with a nicer-sounding name. A repressive law by any other name still stinks just as bad.
Abasir: Deja vu! We've been here before. Remember how he introduced the so-called Peaceful Assembly Act following which a well-publicised peaceful assembly of citizens was deliberately trapped, gassed, beaten by gangs of unnamed men in uniform and thugs in mufti?
Kgen: Knowing Najib, the false democrat, the new Act will be even worse than the old Act. Just like the Peaceful Assembly Act, which is even harsher than the existing Police Act.
However, PM Najib Razak claims that the Act will “ensure the best balance between the need to guarantee the freedom of speech for every citizen and the need to handle the complexity of plurality existing in the country”, as reported by the state news agency Bernama:
“With this new act we would be better equipped to manage our national fault lines. It will also help to strengthen national cohesion by protecting national unity and nurturing religious harmony… and mutual respect in the Malaysian society made up of various races and religions.”
Najib also stated that the government wants to invite views and opinions from Malaysian individuals and organisations on the legislation, naming the Attorney-General's Chambers as the agency responsible for consulting with such stakeholders.
Datuk Seri Mohamed Nazri Abdul Aziz, a minister in the Prime Minister's department, stated that unlike the to-be-repealed Sedition Act, the NHA will allow for criticism of the Malaysian government:
There should be no absolute freedom to the extent we can call people pariah, pimps and so on.It is [obvious] we want to protect the Institution of the Malay Rulers. They are above politics and this country practises Constitutional Monarchy
According to Mohamed Nazri, the new Act is not expected to be tabled until next year. It is therefore likely that the Sedition Act will remain in place until after the 13th Malaysian General Election, which must be held before March 2013.