Will criticising Umno now be labelled seditious?

by Sheridan Mahavera
The Malaysian Insider
28 November 2014

The hardliners in Umno have won and they want every Malaysian to know this.

Any criticism that even touches on Islam, the Malays and the rulers will be seen as an attack against Umno, and vice versa.

This is the message from the first day of the Umno assembly and the party’s conservatives have proved how influential they are as they have managed to get their president, Datuk Seri Najib Razak, to go back on his own word.

And this has serious repercussions for the man on the street, said noted political analyst Prof James Chin, as it could signal an increased clamp down on legitimate dissent.

Grassroots pressure

According to Penang Umno chief Datuk Zainal Abidin Osman, if Najib did not abandon his plans to repeal the Sedition Act, there would have been immense pressure against him.

Delegates to this year’s assembly, who are essentially spokespersons for the party’s ordinary members, would have argued for the Sedition Act to be maintained.

Zainal Abidin said almost all of the party’s over 20,000 branches had discussed the Sedition Act. The consensus was that it should be maintained.

This consensus was then brought to the divisions, to their state committees and in the end, it materialised in the debates at the general assembly.

“So when Najib said he would retain the Act, everyone changed their speeches to thank him instead of pressuring him. If not, the debates would have been more heated,” Zainal Abidin said.

“Their thinking is that the Act has kept the peace in Malaysia for 57 years. Except for that one blip in 1969, we have lived in peace and harmony. So why get rid of it?” said Zainal Abidin.

Almost all of the delegates who spoke yesterday expressed a variation of this belief.

“The Sedition Act has protected us all this while. Action can be taken against those who do not like Malays or Islam,” said Perlis Umno delegate Datuk Zahidi Zainul Abidin.

“We already made a mistake when we got rid of the Internal Security Act and amended the University and University Colleges Act,” said Malacca Umno delegate Mustafa Musa.

“The only people who have benefitted from the Sedition Act is the opposition,” said Mustafa.

Zainal Abidin tried to allay fears that Najib’s decision would spark a new wave of suppression against those who criticised Putrajaya and Umno.

“Najib has already made it clear, it will not be used as a political tool.”

The line between criticism and hate

Yet, the fact that many of those charged under the Sedition Act are politicians from Pakatan Rakyat (PR) and individuals who have criticised government policy was something that escaped the delegates’ attention.

Before Najib made his announcement yesterday, a short video clip was shown to delegates of postings on social media that were supposedly seditious.

They included insults towards the Malay rulers, drawings defacing Muslim symbols and the notorious Ramadan message from controversial bloggers Alvin Tan and Vivian Lee.

What was missing were the faces of PR leaders like Khalid Samad, N. Surendran or Tian Chua, academics like Professor Azmi Sharom or preachers such as Wan Ji Wan Hussin.

All of them have been charged under the act for expressing their opinions on the decisions made by Putrajaya.

Delegates did not make any distinction between criticism of policy and law, for instance on the limits of royal power, and actual hate speech.

On the contrary, it appeared Umno members would prefer if the two were conflated and taken to be the same thing.

One delegate, Datuk Jamelah A. Bakar, even proposed that any insult towards Umno leaders be considered seditious.

“We should hunt down those who flee to other countries and take away their citizenship,” said the Wanita Umno delegate.

Chin, of Monash University, said Najib’s decision reflected a worrying trend in Umno which can have dire consequences for the country as a whole.

“Najib had a strong rightwing speech. He tried to forge a middle path for the party. But everyone refused to go with him. So now he is following what Umno wants.”

Najib’s earlier promise to repeal the act was sternly opposed by the party’s conservatives such as Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin and Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

“He wants to show that he is not as weak as people say he is. But with this, it means he is giving up on the moderate approach.”

Chin also felt that it is convenient for Umno to blur the lines between criticism towards them and hate speech.

“By retaining the Act, they are saying that if you criticise us, even the slightest, we will get you.” – November 28, 2014.

  1. #1 by winstony on Friday, 28 November 2014 - 9:50 am

    Even Hitler didn’t say that the Nazis coundn’t be criticised!!!

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