Saying one thing but doing another

Terence Fernandez
The Malaysian Insider
17 September 2014

“Sedition and seditious and defamatory libel are arcane offences – from a bygone era when freedom of expression wasn’t seen as the right it is today.

“Freedom of speech is now seen as the touchstone of democracy, and the ability of individuals to criticise the state is crucial to maintaining freedom.

“The existence of these obsolete offences in this country had been used by other countries as justification for the retention of similar laws which have been actively used to suppress political dissent and restrict press freedom.”

The above statement is the words of UK justice minister Claire Ward in 2009 when she announced that the government was doing away with sedition offences.

The UK government had remarked that it was troubled by the fact that other countries used components of this archaic 1661 British enactment to justify quelling political dissent and differences opinion.

Malaysia, Thailand, Singapore and Zimbabwe were named among countries which have used the iron-clad interpretation of sedition as a blank cheque to go after anyone who criticises the authorities and bring the government of the day into disrepute.

Sedition laws after all, said Ward, have no place in a society that emphasises the freedom of the individual and a nation which aims to be a leader in the fight for equality and civil liberties.

Following pressure from its own society, the UK government moved for the repeal of laws governing sedition and criminal defamation.

However, this was not something that was done overnight.

The idea for the abolition of UK’s sedition laws was first mooted in 1977 by the Law Commission and working papers were only drafted in 1985, with the actual repeal coming into fruition in 2009.

Hopefully it will not take us 32 years as it did the English to junk sedition rules.

While our Sedition Act is a 1948 enactment that was focused on national security during the emergency, as we have seen and experienced, the Sedition Act is a brush with wide bristles – depending on who is using it and what it is used for.

But it will be nice to know that Malaysia – or at least our leaders – are not alone in this dilemma of doing away with an act that in effect helps in self-preservation.

India, for instance, is debating doing away with its own 1870 Act and introducing components for the protection of national security in its Penal Code.

The National Harmony Act and the National Unity Act which are being drafted are Malaysia’s feeble attempts at demonstrating to the international community that it is serious about the respect of civil liberties and freedom of expression – a cosmetic measure that parallels its ambitions for a seat on the UN Security Council.

The new act allows racist statements as long as they do not incite harm. Fears are its wide interpretation will be used as a “get out of jail” free card for extremist groups with ties to the ruling party while minorities who speak out and scholarly opinions will be reigned in.

It could end up being worse than the Sedition Act that we have now.

Two years ago on Malaysia Day, the prime minister made this promise:

“The Sedition Act represents a bygone era in our country and with today’s announcement we mark another step forward in Malaysia’s development.

“The new National Harmony Act will balance the right of freedom of expression as enshrined in the Constitution, while at the same time ensuring that all races and religions are protected.

“Our country’s strength lies in its diversity. The new Act underlines my commitment to nurturing the spirit of harmony and mutual respect that has been the foundation of our stability and success.”

Since then, the prime minister has reiterated the “government’s commitment” to repeal the Sedition Act. Unfortunately all we have heard from the prime minister is lip service. Actions speak louder than words.

The dragnet over the last month flies in the face of the “reforms” this administration has promised.

First they came for the politicians, and then they came for the lawyers. Next they came for the NGOs, following which they came for the academicians. Then they came for the press.

That many voices of differing opinions are spending their Malaysia Day week at police stations only goes towards underscoring the “cakap tak serupa bikin” syndrome which seems to define the Najib administration. – September 17, 2014.

* Terence is a veteran at giving police statements. He hopes this article will not make him a guest of the Royal Malaysian Police yet again. He is investigations editor at The Edge and can be reached at [email protected]

  1. #1 by Justice Ipsofacto on Thursday, 18 September 2014 - 9:36 am

    Might as well be honest about things and pass an Anti anti-umno Act of Malaysia.

  2. #2 by Jeffrey on Thursday, 18 September 2014 - 9:48 am

    “National security” might be the excuse why Sedition Act was enacted in 1948 but the real reason for sedition enactment anywhere has always been focused on repressing the questioning of an established government’s legitimacy in a manner intended to undermine or overthrow it by those whose voices (whether by rhetoric reason or in writing) are articulate to influence the masses against it for no reasonable cause. If the masses are not educated or matured they can be easily aroused by demagogues and rabble rousers to undermine and even overthrow an established government or breakup of a nation (here proponents of sedition will cite even breakup of the UK), and here sedition becomes useful to put away the troublemakers or prevent the breakup of a nation. However sedition enactment can be selectively enforced to favour those in power who want to preserve power and position. The contradiction is that freedom of speech and existence of a viable opposition are the mantra of so called democracy and undermining the administration with the view of replacing it as an alternative by constitutional means of a ballot box is also part of what the opposition party or other dissenting stakeholders do in a democracy. Where to draw the line is the problem. Those opposing the enactment would argue for its repeal since there are already sufficient laws to put away the demagogues and rabble rousers and there’s no need for sedition law to be retained where it could be misused by power holders.

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