The Malaysian Bar is aghast that four persons have been detained under the Sedition Act 1948 in the first 11 days of 2019.
The first three individuals were detained on 8 January 2019 for allegedly uploading comments that insulted the former Yang di-Pertuan Agong, Sultan Muhammad V, and the fourth individual was detained on 11 January 2019 for allegedly accusing the government of covering up the death of fireman Muhammad Adib Mohd Kassim.
The Malaysian Bar does not condone nor abide by rudeness, insults and or disrespect for the rulers, or for accusations to be levied against the government without basis. Such conduct is unwarranted, offensive and reprehensible.
Nevertheless, the Malaysian Bar does not advocate the criminalisation of such behaviour under the Sedition Act. We remain steadfast in our position that the Act is an archaic and repressive law that must be repealed.
The Sedition Act, as with its predecessor the Sedition Ordinance, was conceived and used as an instrument of oppression. It imposes an unreasonable and disproportionate restriction to the fundamental freedom of expression enshrined in the Federal Constitution. It is the antithesis of democracy, rule of law, justice and human rights.
The Sedition Act is unacceptable and repugnant to the rule of law for the further reasons that it creates offences arising from an act, speech, words, publication or other thing defined as having “seditious tendencies”, which are imprecise and without clear boundaries.
The use of the Sedition Act, as in the four cases mentioned earlier, has been justified on the premise that there are matters deemed “sensitive” that must not be discussed, as this would lead to public disorder. The Act is therefore said to be necessary to ensure and maintain harmony, unity and public order.
But we believe that true respect and harmony cannot be attained by compulsion and penal sanctions.
We note that on 10 January 2019, Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad announced that the government would define what constitutes insults to serve as a guide for law enforcement agencies with regard to the use of the Sedition Act.
The provision of a definition of what is insulting does not mitigate or alter the “oppressive” and “tyrannical” nature of the Sedition Act — words that the government itself had used to describe the Act in its election manifesto for the 2018 general election.
The Malaysian Bar calls upon the government to reinstate its moratorium on the use of the Sedition Act pending its repeal; for appropriate new laws to be enacted; and for the police to cease all investigations pursuant to the Act.
George Varughese is president of the Malaysian Bar.