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Criticizing the Government Could Get You Arrested in Malaysia. Is it Time to Repeal the Sedition Act?

Launching of people's movement calling for the repeal of the Sedition Act of 1948. Photo from Suaram.net

Launching of people's movement calling for the repeal of the Sedition Act of 1948. Photo from Suaram.net

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak made an election promise in 2012 that his government would repeal the Sedition Act of 1948, a colonial-era law which has been used to silence critics of the government. Two years later, the law is still in effect and authorities continue to use it against the political opposition.

In recent weeks, dozens have been charged in the courts for violating the Sedition Act. Ten arrests were done in a span of 26 days since August 19. Those accused of making seditious remarks included lawyers, journalists, preachers, and even academicians.

Writing for The Nut Graph, Ding Jo-Ann explained how the broad and vague provisions in the Sedition Act had been abused in the past to harass activists and critics of the ruling party:

It is a crime to excite disaffection against the government, or the administration of justice, or even just to raise “discontent or disaffection” amongst the inhabitants of Malaysia. It contains broad offences such as promoting “feelings of ill will and hostility between different races or classes”.

The repeal of this Act is certainly desirable given its antiquated nature and perceived abuse in the selective prosecution of government critics.

Worried about the sudden rise of sedition-related arrests, around 128 civil society organizations coalesced and called for the immediate abolition of the “archaic” law. They released a statement and an online petition demanding the withdrawal of the sedition cases filed against individuals who were merely voicing an opinion about government policies:

No one should be criminalized for expressing his or her opinion, no matter how his or her opinions may differ from the government's, as long as he or she is not advocating violence or religious or racial hatred.

About 300 academics signed a statement in support of a law scholar who was charged with sedition for commenting on a political crisis that took place in 2009. The “subversive” comment allegedly made by the scholar was cited in a news article. “Does it not defeat the very purpose of his work and indeed the work of thousands of other academics within a nationwide university system if he is to be summarily hauled up for merely doing his duty as an academic?” the statement read. 

Activists are using the Twitter hashtag #MansuhAktaHasutan (Abolish Sedition Act) to enjoin the people to sing, dance, and pose to repeal the law.

Ramon Navaratnam, chairperson of the Asli Centre of Public Policy Studies, reminded the government that the Sedition Act is not helping Malaysia:

We have been urged to think out of the box, innovate and give feedback to the government and to help transform the economy and indeed our beloved country.

But how will this structural change be possible if honest dialogue is apparently stifled by the heavy handed use of the powerful Sedition Act?

It’s “sedition season”, wrote K Kabilan noting the numerous arrests made by the police in the past month:

This is the season where one wrong word can land you in trouble, never mind if you had uttered your allegedly seditious words three years ago, or had only been putting your educated thoughts in writing. As long as it offends someone in power, you look certain to be in trouble.

Parti Sosialis Malaysia's youth wing accused Prime Minister Najib of being a “Sedition King”. The group also warned Najib that the legal repression will incite the people to resist: 

These people (who have been arrested or charged under the Sedition Act) are not thieves, robbers, nor murderers, they merely spoke up.

The government has forgotten that this is an old tactic to frighten the people, especially the youth and the students, (but) the more oppressive they get, the more people would come forward to speak up.

But what provoked authorities to make arrests in recent weeks? Nathaniel Tan thinks it’s related to the coming assembly of the ruling party: “I sincerely doubt that the levels of ‘seditious’ comments have gone up in recent weeks or months. Rather, it is only that the Umno General Assembly has drawn closer.”

Umno, the country's largest political party, has never lost an election in Malaysia. Some of the Umno hardliners have been criticizing the leadership of the prime minister and they have expressed reservation over the decision of the government to abolish the Sedition Act.

As an alternative to the Sedition Act, some government scholars are proposing the enactment of a National Harmony Bill, National Unity Bill and National Unity and Integration Commission Bill. The government vowed to conduct further consultations about these proposals but human rights groups are concerned that some of these measures would merely revive the “draconian” provisions of the Sedition Act.

Malaysians are celebrating Malaysia Day this week and perhaps the government can use this occasion to renew its commitment to promote democracy and human rights. Prime Minister Najib can deliver a strong statement by fulfilling his pledge to abolish the Sedition Act.

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