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Published: Sunday October 5, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Sunday October 5, 2014 MYT 7:45:23 AM

It’s not a zero-sum game

The current public debate on the Sedition Act must take into consideration what the law says on what shall be deemed as ‘not seditious’. 

SINCE August, at least 18 Opposi­tion leaders, activists, law professors, lawyers, student leaders and a journalist have either been questioned, arrested, charged or found guilty under the Sedition Act.

While the Sedition Act has been used in the past to silence and intimidate political opponents, never has it been enforced with such ferocity than in the past few weeks.

What is the game plan here? Who is orchestrating this new tactical assault against government critics? With the exception of one person, all others caught in this dragnet are those whose opinions and responses are seen as critical of particular actions committed by those in authority.

If the intent is to instil fear and silence the rakyat who have the temerity to express their opinions on what they think is wrong with the way this country is run, then this is a futile effort that will only lead to a backlash – as it already has.

Many of those who support the Sedition Act talk as if there are no exceptions allowed under the law to comment and critique.

The Act clearly states that “an act, speech, words, publication or other thing shall NOT be deemed to be seditious” if it is:

(a) to show that any Ruler has been misled or mistaken in any of his measures;

(b) to point out errors or defects in any Government or constitution as by law established or in legislation or in the administration of justice with a view to the remedying of the errors or defects;

There are limits to this exception in relation to the national language, the Bumiputra quota system and the institution of the monarchy.

Draconian as the Sedition Act is, it does not, in one stroke, extinguish the right to comment and critique any public policy or government action to ensure that justice is done. Moreover, this is a fundamental right to freedom of expression that is constitutionally protected, and no law can make this guarantee a mere illusion.

The current public debate on the Sedition Act must take into consi­deration what the law says on what shall be deemed as “not seditious”. For the law did not envisage that anyone is infallible in the execution of their duties.

Questions arise on law professor Azmi Sharom being charged for merely giving his legal opinion on a wiser way to remove a mentri besar than how it was done in the past. Similarly, PKR vice-president

N. Surendran is charged with issuing a press statement critical of the facts of the Court of Appeal judgment in the Anwar Ibrahim Sodomy II case.

The list of questioning goes on.

The public knows there are media that persistently manufacture headlines inciting racial and religious hatred.

There are many extremist activists who ceaselessly hurl insults and declare outlandish conspiracies against those of a different race or religion, and even against those within the same ethnic and religious group who think differently.

And yet, we are not seeing this sedition dragnet extended to any of them, except for one.

Maintaining “public order” is a convenient excuse that authoritarian governments use to silence dissent. I say the best guarantee of public order is when governments deliver on their promises, practise good governance, respect fundamental liberties, uphold the rule of law, ensure distributive justice.

That’s enough on any government’s plate to keep every arm of government busy in fulfilling the aspirations of the people, instead of wasting its resources and losing support in the process in persecuting those who disagree with them.

So how long and how far more is this sedition blitzkrieg going to continue? Already an incredulous 10% of the opposition MPs have been rounded up for sedition charges.

Is this a new-fangled tactic to weaken the opposition, so that a by-election can be engineered if the MPs are found guilty, imprisoned for at least one year or fined RM2,000? But there is no guarantee that a by-election will guarantee victory. So what is the end-game? An authoritarian state with supremacist rule on the basis of group identity, even as intra-group inequalities are rising?

How could this be happening in an upper middle income country that leads the Global Movement of Moderates, that presents itself to the world not just as a moderate Muslim country, but also a model developing country?

That the High Court will now hear the Azmi Sharom’s constitutional challenge of his charge under Section 4(1) of the Sedition Act will be an important platform for all sides of the debate to be heard.

For the Sedition Act, an invention of colonial rule to subdue nationalist uprisings was not passed by Parliament.

In Malaysia, it was introduced by the British to deal with the Communist insurgency in 1948. In 1969, when Parliamentary democracy was suspended after the May 13 riots, the Act was amended and expanded to control public discussion on the national language, the quota system for Bumiputras and the institution of the monarchy. The country was then under the rule of the National Operations Council.

Dr Azmi’s lawyers will argue this law is unconstitutional as Article 10 (2) of the Federal Constitution states that any restrictions on freedom of expression, assembly and association can only be imposed by Parliament.

There is already a civil society campaign to repeal the Sedition Act. And the Bar Council is planning a public rally of lawyers and pupils to protest against this current assault on freedom of speech and expression.

The message from the government seems clear that it is backtracking on the Prime Minister’s pledge to repeal the Sedition Act in 2012 and replace it with a new National Harmony and Reconciliation Bill that is being drafted by the National Unity Consultative Council.

In the end, the larger challenge before the government is the urgent need to go back to the drawing board and realistically deal with the new world that is Malaysia today.

How best to meet the changing aspirations of the rakyat in the age of the Internet and social media where the government can no longer dictate information and public opinion.

How best to respond to the rising discontent, the rising intolerance, and the complexities of managing competing interests and demands.

Over the next few months, there will be greater disgruntlement over higher cost of living, what with the recent price hike on petrol and diesel and the forthcoming GST.

The challenges faced in maintaining popular support are daunting to any government. It needs to open the public space for debate, for all views to be heard, listen to the diverse voices and manage the contentions to best serve the public interest.

No one has the monopoly on the right answers to difficult issues. But the government can only successfully manage this if it embraces everyone as a valued part of the Malaysian family. That we are all on this boat together.

This is not a zero-sum game. The Prime Minister said this himself at the UN General Assembly when he talked of a necessary commitment to “inclusive politics” and the need to deal with conditions that allow “disillusion to grow”.

So who in his government is listening and translating this into action? The answer certainly does not lie in using the sledgehammer of the Sedition Act to shut the doors of debate and silence the critics.

Tags / Keywords: sedition, activists, zainah anwar

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