LAST_UPDATESun, 22 Jul 2018 10am

Sedition Act U-Turn: Will It Be A Smooth Drive Ahead?

Najib's U-turn on Sedition Act has sent shock wave to human rights advocates and opposition members.Najib's U-turn on Sedition Act has sent shock wave to human rights advocates and opposition members.IN a society as polarized as Malaysia, the recent announcement by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak on the retainment of Sedition Act 1948 - with two additional provisions, have met responses that are poles apart.

Of course, the camp that supported Najib’s decision, mainly those with Malay protectionist agenda and point of view cheered on when it was announced in the UMNO General Assembly recently. On the other extreme, camp sedition-act-should-be-repealed-or-abolished have to listened to the announcement with only contemptuous silence.

A question remains: Why the U-turn to retain the highly contentious Sedition Act?

Najib first announced the intention to repeal of Sedition Act in July 2012 (which was amended five times before with the last amendment in 1975), which he promised will be replaced with a watered-down National Harmony Act as part of his reform agenda. Therefore, his recent announcement to not only retain the Act, but to strengthen it by adding provisions related to protect the sanctity of Islam (while not insulting other religions) and against Sabah and Sarawak secessionists has raised grave concerns.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak announces the retainment of Sedition Act 1948. Pic: BBCPrime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak announces the retainment of Sedition Act 1948. Pic: BBC

The more important question: Will there be severe implications by retaining the Act, or perhaps later the addition of the National Harmony Act alongside it especially to Malaysia’s human rights, civil liberties and our standings in the world?

Flawed With Unfairness

Sedition Act has long been used as a political tool, and its controversial laws have also been used for alleged “selective persecution”. Legal professionals attribute these persecutions with wide provisions and varied interpretation.

Naturally, a slew of members from the opposition parties have been charged with the controversial law, including the current Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng who was charged in 1995 for publicly criticising the then Attorney-General’s handling of a statutory rape case. Meanwhile, recent cases include former student activist Adam Adli, who was charged in September for his seditious remark questioning the results of the 13th general election and his call for street protest.

What can be put to question though, as strange as it sounds, in some cases however, the Act appears to be lenient, leading to the drop of sedition charges and leaving some fortunate individuals off the hook. Take the case of Ibrahim Ali for example, where charges were dropped by the Attorney-General on the basis that it was never intentional to call for the burning of Malay-language Bibles containing the word “Allah”.

Racial Harmony Or Segregation?Proham secretary-general Datuk Dr Denison Jayasooria. Pic:Malay Mail Online.Proham secretary-general Datuk Dr Denison Jayasooria. Pic:Malay Mail Online.

Another question beckons, on what grounds is the Sedition Act the sole reason that promotes peace and racial harmony, to bind all religions and races in the nation as a unit when criticisms and honest opinions are shot down to purport power of the ruling party, only instilling more doubt amongst Malaysians.

Malaysian Bar Council president Christopher Leong said in a report, “The Malaysian Bar Council is disappointed that the Prime Minister is not repealing the Sedition Act 1948 as promised. In wanting peace and harmony, we should be honest with ourselves as to what the real causes of disharmony are in Malaysia,” he said.

Leong added that the Sedition Act was not designed nor intended to achieve true peace and harmony.

This stance was also echoed by Datuk Dr Denison Jayasooria, secretary-general of Society for the Promotion of Human Rights (Proham) who told Malaysian Digest, “Sedition Act leaves room for abuse in addition to preventing people from raising questions on substantive issues. It doesn’t qualify in preserving racial harmony.”

Denison and Leong had both lobbied for the repeal of Sedition Act and have expressed their disappointment of Najib’s recent announcement towards strengthening the act instead.

Outdated, Redundant And Inconsiderate?

Denison feels that another point of contention is that the law is archaic in nature. And as Sabah and Sarawak have also condemned Najib acting against its nationalists violating civil liberties, he believes that the provision that outlaws the secession of Sabah and Sarawak will need to be laid upon their perspectives.

“The wording of the act uses the language of 1948. It should be repealed to make it more contemporary and relevant.

“Najib would have to discuss this with the people of Sabah and Sarawak because it was not laid as a provision in the 18-20 point agreement when Malaysia was formed in 1963. We cannot implement the law from the peninsular Malaysia’s perspective,” Denison explains.

Last Monday, de facto Law Minister Nancy Shukri said that Sedition Act can co-exist with laws that were made with the express purpose of replacing it, such as the National Harmony Act (NHA) which is now still a Bill. It is rather confusing that we need two laws to co-exist. One, on the fact the National Harmony Act have some unrelated parts to Sedition Act - which means some parts might overlap, and two, the relevance of having Sedition Act or both Acts to preserve racial harmony.

Would having these Acts side by side then be redundant? And the same raises eyebrows of having the fundamental constitution which already sufficiently addresses the protection of religion (Article 3), special rights for the Malays (Article 153) as well as existing provision with regards to the Royals.

Even Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin, after the general assembly has made a statement that the government may consider dropping its earlier plan to introduce the National Harmony Act, saying he is “not sure if it is still needed”.

In our interview with PKR vice-president Tian Chua, he claims, “I don’t think that National Harmony Act is going to be helpful. It will end up being repressive in the name of preserving racial harmony.”

“For me to preserve racial harmony, it is not just by (using) Acts. The government should lead by example, by exercising tolerance and willingness to accept differences and engaging in debate should issues arise,” he added.

In addition to strengthening the provisions, Former Court of Appeal judge Datuk Mohd Noor Abdullah has lamented that it would be unconstitutional to amend the law based on the notion that the additional provisions form part of Malay supremacy rights.

Instead, he suggested that the proposed amendments made it an offense for those who wanted to incite any states to leave Malaysia. He also expressed that in order to foster inclusiveness, the country must do away with racial based politics.

“There should be a provision to restrict a person advocating or propagating publicly the cause of ones race to the exclusion of all other races. “Racial tagging” had led to increased racial polarization,” he was quoted saying.

A Fine Line Between Politics And Legal Policies

PKR vice-president Tian Chua. Pic: vice-president Tian Chua. Pic: leader Anwar Ibrahim had said that progressive forces within the ruling party were losing their case as they were succumbing to pressure from the extreme right on the precept of defending the Malays. This sparks a thought in numerous quarters whether Najib’s U-turn and strengthening of the Act is regarded as a political move? Tian Chua tells us perhaps so, as Najib’s decision has proven that there are no general constitutions being reformed, and there is absolutely no respect towards civil liberty.

“The original promise is merely an election gimmick. When it doesn’t work to garner support, he decided to retain the Sedition Act.

“It is not so much a U-turn, but he is sending out signals to rally support from people in his party by making a popular decision. Najib is not looking to reform but to keep an ultra-Malay stance,” he professed.

In a different light, Umno Vice President Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who is also the Home Minister claimed that the party is relieved by the decision made by Najib. He formerly announced that with regards to the Act, the ministry’s legal advisers and the Attorney-General’s Chambers have taken three elements into account − provocation on the Internet and social media, religious sensitivities and Sabah and Sarawak secession calls, to strengthen unity and harmony in the country.

“It is time we amend the law so that it is relevant to the present time and future generations as well as for communication over the Internet and other forms of media,” he said.

Some members of the party also expressed their unhappiness that Najib discoursed the Sedition Act repeal. When contacted by Malaysian Digest, former information minister Tan Sri Zainuddin Maidin said, “Najib’s biggest political mistake was when he abolished the Internal Security Act (ISA). Other than that, he shouldn’t have given any room for discussions to amend or abolish the Sedition Act.”

“There was initially no pressure from the government to do so, but after Najib announced that they were considering amending it, he opened the floodgates that now everyone is queuing up to pressure the government to comply,” he added. Former information minister Tan Sri Zainuddin Maidin Former information minister Tan Sri Zainuddin Maidin

Malaysia’s Future In The Hands Of The Sedition Act

As if the tragedies of the Malaysian Airlines planes weren’t enough to shine unwanted spotlight on our country, Najib’s announcement reneging on his promise made two years ago to repeal the Sedition Act has sent worldwide concerns.

While US President Barack Obama has backed Najib’s administration, his Vice President Joe Biden has criticised the decision by saying, “Amid growing US-Malaysia ties, Malaysian government’s use of legal system & Sedition Act to stifle opposition raises rule of law concerns,” on his Twitter account.

Last week, United Nations (UN) resident coordinator in Malaysia, Michelle Gyles-McDonnough said, UN is watching closely how the Najib’s administration plans to fortify the Sedition Act as it is concerned that it can be used to limit the freedom of expression. This has raised concern that Malaysia’s new position as UN Security Council (UNSC) non-permanent member next year could be under threat.

UN resident coordinator in Malaysia Michelle Gyles-McDonnough. Pic: The Malaysian Insider.UN resident coordinator in Malaysia Michelle Gyles-McDonnough. Pic: The Malaysian Insider.In response to this, she told Malaysian Digest, “Malaysia was appointed to the UNSC with 187 out of the total 192 votes by member states at the UN. This reflects the confidence that member states have in Malaysia’s ability to act on their behalf as the Security Council carries out its primary responsibility to maintain international peace and security, and do so in accordance with the Purposes and Principles of the UN Charter. The making of national laws is the responsibility of states in line with national objectives and international commitments.

"If Malaysia chooses to retain the Sedition Act, the UN hopes that the planned amendments will bring the Act in line with international human rights standards, including providing 'clarity and precision around what constitutes seditious offences'.  Any such amendment should be a firm step towards the effective  enjoyment  of  the  right  to  freedom of expression and opinion," she said.

As Malaysia takes a stand on major international issues on democracy, human rights and international relations whether in the UN Security Council or UN Human Rights Council, it is obvious that Najib’s administration need to really consider putting the laws right to promote confidence in the country’s democracy.

In an ideal world, both camps will get what they want. But in the battlefield between conservative and liberal armies, the war is won by one, and the prize of the Act remains. Now, our leaders need to pay serious attention to the intention of the Act being used for rightful laws and keeping to promise that it will be clearly outlined, as opposed to capriciousness in actions, vague sovereignty resulting to unjust purposes to violate human rights.

At the end of the day, what we Malaysians fear is national harmony turning into an international mockery.


- mD