Sedition Act not the solution to ‘three Rs’ problem

It is high time that reformist PH backbenchers push the prime minister to repeal the Sedition Act and adopt the national harmony bills

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By R Dineskumar

On 8 March 2018, exactly two months before a historic general election, Pakatan Harapan launched its election manifesto, promising to do away with tyrannical laws, among them the colonial-era Sedition Act 1948.

“Malaysia’s legal system is frequently abused by the leaders of UMNO and Barisan Nasional to achieve their political interests. Some of these laws were inherited from the British colonial era without amendment to improve weaknesses,” PH said in its Buku Harapan (Book of Hope).

Remember, PH had witnessed its leaders arrested and charged under the Sedition Act by the increasingly autocratic, kleptocratic Barisan Nasional ruling coalition back then. So the coalition put forward a strong case to voters that such laws need to be repealed for Malaysia to become a mature, genuine democracy.

Millions of people in Malaysia bought into this and eventually catapulted PH to Putrajaya on 9 May 2018 in the hope that a PH-led government would repeal these tyrannical laws.

Unfortunately – but to no one’s surprise – their dream was short-lived. These same laws were retained by Dr Mahathir Mohamad during his second stint in power (2018-2020), this time at the helm of the first PH government.

Fast forward to 2023. The PH-led government, this time in its “unity government” iteration, is ramping up the use of the Sedition Act. The law is being used to crack down on discourse touching on racial, religious and royalty (dubbed the “three Rs”).

According to human rights group Suaram, the act was used in 28 cases last year, a 65% increase from 2022, which only saw only 17 cases.

Why is there an overuse of this law? The answer is simple: Perikatan Nasional’s toxic rhetoric on the three Rs.

PN’s rhetoric and sedition

Supporters of PN, an overwhelmingly ethnic Malay-Muslim coalition, appear to thrive on stirring up ethnic Malay supremacist and Islamic sentiments to remain relevant.

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That means constantly making inflammatory statements about how Anwar Ibrahim’s government is “liberal, secular and DAP-controlled”, which they see as threatening Malay rights and Islam in this country.

Occasionally, some PN leaders like Sanusi Nor and Pas president Hadi Awang land in hot soup for allegedly making statements deemed insulting towards the rulers.

It did not take long for PN to prove itself to be much more toxic than the now-defunct Muafakat Nasional in spewing three-R bile.

This was something that PH apparently could not tolerate. After all, the three-R rhetoric by Bersatu and MN had brought down the first PH government in February 2020, and the present unity government does not want history to repeat itself.

So PH appears to have turned to the Sedition Act – the very law it had spent years calling for a repeal.

Then came the deluge of sedition charges against PN leaders.

With all these three-R offences, many might think it is justified to retain the Sedition Act.

Last November, Bersatu information chief Razali Idris was charged with sedition for alleging that the government controlled the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission and the judicial branch.

Two months later, controversial blogger Wan Azri Wan Deris, also known as Papagomo, was charged with sedition for allegedly claiming the “unity government” is “pro-Israel and Western nations”.

Politically astute observers would know that Asri’s comments are comically false given Malaysia’s unquestionable support for the Palestinians.

Razali’s and Asri’s alleged claims might appear excessive.

But it is overkill to charge both under the Sedition Act – especially when there is Section 499 of the Penal Code, which deals with criminal defamation.

Mounting backlash

The backlash from rights groups and other concerned observers was quick. Many registered their disappointment with PH for having reneged on its past election pledges to repeal the law.

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Anwar’s government eventually gave in to the critics with the announcement of a review of the act so that it could only be used against those who insulted the monarchs. It argued that the law is still necessary to deal with such crimes.

Last month, Home Minister Saifuddin Nasution Ismail said that cabinet has agreed to amend the act, with the aim of not tightening controls but determining how the act can be invoked to manage the three-R phenomenon.

It is becoming crystal clear that the government has no plans to replace the act.

Public harmony laws

Anwar’s “Madani” (civil and compassionate) government would be delusional if it believes the Sedition Act is the right law to use to curb the three-R bile when there are alternatives available.

In 2012, former prime minister Najib Razak, now a high-profile occupant of Kajang Prison, said he would abolish the Sedition Act because it “represents a bygone era” and replace it with a national harmony act.

The national harmony bills, he said, would comprise:

  • a racial and religious hate crimes bill
  • a national harmony and reconciliation bill
  • a national harmony and reconciliation commission bill

The racial and religious hate crimes bill specifically targets hate speech, something which is absent in the Sedition Act.

But of course, Najib was never genuine in pushing this legal reform.

In his second term as PM (2013-2018), the government arrested, investigated and charged more people for alleged sedition than in the entire 55 years of post-Merdeka Malaysia, according to Lawyers for Liberty’s N Surendran.

According to Surendran, the nation witnessed a record 170 sedition cases in just three years (2013 to 2016). In 2015 alone, during the peak of Najib’s sedition crackdown, about 91 people were arrested, investigated or charged with sedition.

The Najib administration charged more people for sedition than the previous administrations of Tunku Abdul Rahman, Abdul Razak Hussein, Hussein Onn, Abdullah Badawi and Mahathir put together, the lawyer said.

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Najib, who is currently paying the price for his crimes, has left behind the national harmony bills. These proposed bills are genuinely positive legislative moves that Anwar’s government should consider.

Even former Bar Council president Karen Cheah, no ally of Najib’s, suggested the government should introduce these bills. These bills, she said, would help in “achieving the balance of upholding freedom of speech while maintaining public security”.

For PH, enacting these public harmony laws might be seen as recognising the former kleptocrat-in-chief. But the coalition has no choice at the moment.

The slow pace of reforms from PH is fast alienating the coalition from voters. This was evident from negative online sentiment towards PH and poor voter turnouts at the coalition’s strongholds of Penang and Selangor in state elections last August. Not surprisingly, Anwar’s PKR lost a string of seats in the polls.

If Anwar does not want to risk further losses (especially among the liberals and progressives) in the next general elections, then he has to swallow his pride and adopt the national harmony act.

It is high time that reformist PH backbenchers push the prime minister to repeal the Sedition Act and adopt the national harmony bills.

With the help of legal scholars and the Bar, improvements can be made to these bills if they do not adequately shield the monarchs from acts of treason and seditious comments.

Sound laws do exist to replace the Sedition Act. It is just that this government needs to stop pretending that they don’t exist.

R Dineskumar, an Aliran member, is a former journalist who now runs his own socio-political blog, The Mutiara Sentinel.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.
AGENDA RAKYAT - Lima perkara utama
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