It came as a surprise when Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak announced in 2012 that he was intending to repeal the Sedition Act, a piece of legislation left over from British colonial rule. People were hopeful, thinking that the abolition of such draconian laws could bring more civil liberties for Malaysians.
Fast-forward two years and hope now seems to be in short supply. Although Najib has again reiterated his intention to repeal the law, the Sedition Act is far from gone. The government has said that it aims to present the National Harmony Act Bill – a piece of replacement legislation to counter religious or racial hatred – to Parliament in 2015.
In the meantime, people are still being charged and investigated for sedition. Four opposition politicians and a law lecturer have been taken to court under the Sedition Act in the past month alone. A student was investigated under the Act for allegedly having “liked” an “I Love Israel” Facebook page, a Malaysiakini journalist was arrested for her interview with an executive councillor in Penang and a former student activist jailed for 10 months for a speech he had given.
A law introduced by the British colonial powers in 1948 to combat Communists, the Sedition Act outlaws any action that would “excite disaffection” against any ruler, government or the administration of justice in Malaysia. The maximum penalty for breaching this law is three years’ imprisonment, a RM5,000 (approx. USD1,573) fine, or both.
N Surendran, vice-president of the Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR) and one of the lawyers for the beleaguered opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, was charged with sedition on August 18 for his criticism of a court judgment relating to Anwar’s case. He later faced another sedition charge for saying that the sodomy charges against Anwar were politically motivated.
“It’s a sedition blitz. This is clearly an attempt to stifle dissent,” he told AFP.
“The reason why the Sedition Act is still in place is because it is so easy to use against dissidents,” said Syahredzan Johan, the chair of the National Young Lawyers Committee within the Malaysian Bar Council. “The Act is drafted very wide, so any form of dissent can be drafted in. It has a low threshold: there’s no need to prove intention or that anyone was incited. All you need is to prove that those things were published or uttered and you’ve got your conviction.”
Others also believe that there is an element of opposition within UMNO – part of the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition – itself towards Najib’s attempt at being a “reformer.”
“The Najib government is using the easiest tool remaining, now that the [Internal Security Act] has been changed,” Bridget Welsh, Senior Research Associate at the Center for East Asia Democratic Studies of National Taiwan University, wrote in an email to The Diplomat. “It also is part of an effort to taint the opposition as ‘betraying’ the country and potentially removing key leaders from positions. It reflects jockeying for positions and prestige within UMNO.”
Human rights advocates are also concerned about the Act’s impact on freedom of expression in Malaysia. “With so many people under the investigation, arrest and charges of the Sedition Act, and the conviction of student activist Safwan Anang, the Sedition Act is going to have a very serious a chilling effects on freedom of expression of the ordinary Malaysians,” wrote human rights organization SUARAM in response to questions from The Diplomat.
With citizens deterred from criticizing the government or state officials, critics worry that politicians and high-ranking officials would no longer be held to account by the people they serve, and allowed to behave with more and more impunity.
The Malaysian Bar Council will not be sitting idle. On September 4 the National Young Lawyers Committee (NYLC) launched #MansuhAktaHasutan (#AbolishSeditionAct in English), a year-long campaign to gather grassroots support across Malaysia for the repeal of the Sedition Act.
Although the backlash against the Sedition Act has already gained some momentum, Syahredzan says it’s still necessary to take a year to reach out to more people and conduct public education campaigns on the Sedition Act.
“For us to demand repeal now… I don’t think any significant change is going to happen. You need political will, and political will will only come when the government thinks there is a significant number of Malaysians who don’t want the Act,” he said.
To get this significant number, #MansuhAktaHasutan campaigners are prioritizing a push to gain broad-based support across the country. Political campaigns in Malaysia have often been criticized as being too heavily based in the capital of Kuala Lumpur, neglecting more rural areas where political education may be lacking and public opinion very different from that in the urban center. Such KL-centric campaigns, Syahredzan says, allow the government to claim that activists are not reflecting the wider public sentiment, and to dismiss protests.
The NYLC will not be the only ones looking at public education. More than a hundred NGOs, including SUARAM, have come together to launch the Abolish Sedition Act Movement. They plan to launch a nationwide roadshow – accompanied with a parallel social media campaign – that will raise awareness about the Sedition Act and the need for repeal.
“What is important is that we need to gain that critical mass of people who are going to say that they don’t want to support the Sedition Act any longer. This is crucial,” Syahredzan said. “After one year we can tell the government that we’ve gone and done this campaign, we’ve gathered the support and we can show them with the signatures we’ve collected.”
He continues to say that the NYLC will not shy away from collaborations with political parties. “I’m quite certain that we cannot effectively have this campaign without cooperating with political parties. The Malaysian Bar has a limited reach outside of the urban centers. We are open to working with anyone! Even if there is a person in Barisan Nasional who is against the Sedition Act and wants to work with us, we are open and willing to work with them.”
While SUARAM does not believe that any other piece of legislation would be necessary to replace the Sedition Act, Syahredzan had actually been involved in drafting one of the three replacement bills as part of the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC).
“That bill put the threshold of criminalizing free speech at a much higher threshold. You need to prove that there is an intention to actually incite racial hatred. There must be an element of harm, or actual incitement to physical harm, injuries to persons or damage to property. The replacement bill doesn’t criminalize any criticism of the government or court judgments and so on and so forth,” he said.
The three bills were met with harsh criticism. Detractors said that the bills were against Islam, and would undermine the position of Malay Muslims in the country. Others slammed the NUCC for not carrying out more public engagement. Still others had problems with a clause that prohibited discrimination based on gender.
In fact, there are some groups who don’t want to see the Sedition Act to go at all. The National Unity Front – a group formed by Malay rights group Perkasa and 54 other Malay organizations – have launched a pro-Sedition Act campaign in response to #MansuhAktaHasutan.
Syahredzan is unsure of what will become of the bills. “The government shelved the bills. They said it would only be presented to Parliament sometime next year. I don’t know if these bills will see the light of day.”
That may yet change if activists from #MansuhAktaHasutan and the Abolish Sedition Act Movement are successful in their push to mobilize grassroots support. As public education campaigns begin to roll out across the length and breadth of Malaysia, the prime minister might find it harder and harder to break his promises.
Kirsten Han is a writer, videographer and photographer. Originally from Singapore, she has worked on documentary projects around Asia and written for publications including Waging Nonviolence, Asian Correspondent and The Huffington Post.