Movement to repeal the Sedition Act

In July 2012, the Prime Minister announced that the Government would repeal the Sedition Act 1948. The announcement was made as part of the Government's political transformation plan, which included repealing the Internal Security Act and annulling the three subsisting proclamations of emergency.

In place of the Sedition Act, the Government would table a "National Harmony Bill", seeking to "find a balance between every citizen's freedom of expression, and the need to handle the complex nature of the country's multi-racial and multi-religious society."

Earlier this year, the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC) drafted three bills to replace the Sedition Act. The three bills were made public in order to gain feedback and consultation from stakeholders and interested parties. However, because of pressure from certain quarters, it appears that the three bills have now been shelved indefinitely.

The drafting of three bills was the Government's most serious attempt thus far to repeal the Sedition Act. Two years after the Prime Minister’s announcement, the Act is still in force.

A law that is still part of the statute books is still valid. Legally, there is nothing to stop the Government from carrying on investigations and prosecutions under the Act. But by promising to repeal the Act, the Government has tacitly acknowledged that the Act must go. There is a legitimate expectation that the Sedition Act will be on its last legs, coming ever closer to its expiry date and that there would be less reliance on the Sedition Act.

Not so. The Act it is still being applied on the citizens of this country even after the Prime Minister's announcement. It has been used on politicians, like the late Karpal Singh, whose conviction still stands as his appeal would have abated with his passing. It has been used on activists and political dissidents. It has been used on netizens who say or post "offensive" things online. Our freedom of speech and expression is still being restricted by the Government through the use of the Sedition Act.

The Act is a colonial vestige. It was enacted before the Federation of Malaya achieved independence and it was used by the British to deal with militant communists insurgents at the time.

The Act criminalises "sedition" by making it an offence to do anything which has a "seditious tendency" or to utter any seditious words. "Seditious" is defined in the Act as any act, speech, words, publication or other thing that qualifies as one having a "seditious tendency".

What is a "seditious tendency"? Almost anything can and would have a "seditious tendency", going by the Act's definition. Any criticism of the Government would be seditious. Any comment made that can raise ill will and hostility within the population. What is said or done may even be justified, yet would still fall foul of the Act. For a sedition charge to succeed, the prosecution does not even need to establish intention of the accused to be seditious.

Freedom of speech and expression is not absolute. But restrictions to freedom of speech and expression should not be arbitrarily applied. The threshold should not be what the Government believes to be seditious. It is not for the Government to decide what can and cannot be said. The Act is so wide and arbitrary that it can and has been abused by the Government to stop people from saying things it does not condone.

So what do we do when the Government has not fulfilled its pledge to repeal the Sedition Act? Well, we as citizens should pressure the Government to come good on its promise. There have been repeated calls from political parties, civil society and the Malaysian Bar for the Government to repeal the Act. But not a concentrated effort.

The  National Young Lawyers Committee of the Bar Council will take the initiative. But this is not just a movement for lawyers. It will be a nationwide movement, made out of all members of society. The law affects everyone, so its repeal must be demanded by everyone.

The time for talking is over. It is time to take action. It is time for all those who want to see the end of the Sedition Act to come together. It is time for a movement - focused and dedicated to a singular goal - to make the Government repeal the Sedition Act.

*Syahredzan is a young lawyer and also the Chairperson of the National Young Lawyers Committee of the Bar Council. The first meeting of the movement to repeal the Sedition Act will be held on Aug 28, 2014, 7.30pm at the Bar Council. All are invited.

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