Much has been made of the Sedition Act 1948 and its continued existence on our statute book since our Prime Minister Najib Razak proposed to abolish it in 2012. As with almost any other contentious issue, there are those who support the abolishment as well as those against. Both have their own, equally valid justifications for why they support one side or the other, and both sides have a right to their own views.
But it is important to keep in mind that the national debate that followed the proposal concluded in favour of the Act’s retention, most probably because the vast majority of Malaysians have realised that repealing the law would be a colossal mistake, much like the repeal of the former Internal Security Act 1960 (ISA) was, along with other so-called ‘draconian’ preventive laws such as the various Emergency Ordinances as well as the Banishment Act 1959 and the Restricted Residence Act 1933. We still suffer the consequences of this erroneous move even today when we, left without effective laws to fight terrorism, are forced to live our lives in constant fear ever since new terrorist groups such as ISIS have emerged in our own backyard.
The lesson learnt was indubitably that while restrictive laws are cause for consternation and do not serve the cause of individual freedoms, any reasonable person would accept that they are necessary to serve the wider public interest, in particular those relating to the fundamental basis of the state, race relations as well as national security. In the case of the Sedition Act, all three of these concerns feature prominently. The apparent failure to realise the need to balance the two is what makes Kuching MP Chong Chieng Jen’s recent press statement on the law all the more lamentable.
Admittedly, much like the ISA was before, the Sedition Act is not perfect, and has attracted controversy due to how it has been used in the past, but this is true of laws proscribing offences of any kind, and is not in itself a reason for abolition. Flawed application equals bad law is defective reasoning, and is what led to the repeal of all the ISA as well as other counter-terrorism laws we had prior, leaving almost next to nothing in our arsenal to use against newly emergent and highly dangerous terrorist groups, leading to an embarrassing situation for our government which had to enact new laws to deal with the growing threat.
Thus, constructive, as opposed to destructive contribution to the discourse on whether preventive laws such as the Sedition Act are needed would centre on the question of not whether the Act should be repealed, but what safeguards may be imposed to balance the need for continued and effective national security against exercise of individual liberty, in this situation, freedom of speech and expression.
But instead of addressing his mind to the question on how best to achieve this balance, the Kuching MP continues to repeat the flawed argument ad nauseam that the law is draconian and has been abused, and thus must be repealed. This argument has been discredited so often, yet there are those like the MP who continue to make it.
His first excuse was alleged legal uncertainty, although he himself only earlier in his press statement sets out in clear terms what has been legally prohibited, namely questions on Part III (citizenship), Article 152 (national language), Article 153 (special position of Malays) and Article 181 (Rulers’ sovereignty) of the Federal Constitution. He does not dispute the necessity of these prohibitions, but pleads that they include political as well as legal issues.
So what? Questioning these constitutional provisions that make up our basic structure would undoubtedly be political, but that does not mean that it should be permitted. They have been agreed at our independence by our forefathers as the basis of our constitutional make up and that is all there is to it. In any event, some matters are too important to be made partisan political fodder.
Then, Chong cites a laundry list of opposition politicians and supporters that have been charged under the Act from the late Karpal Singh to Tian Chua and alleges that the Act has historically been invoked only against those critical of the government. This is, of course, a fiction.
Even a cursory reading of legal precedents involving the Act would reveal the well-known case of Mark Koding, incidentally a BN and thus government MP, being charged and convicted under the Act. Recently, other prominent figures critical of the opposition, such as ISMA president Abdullah Zaik Abd Rahman, have been found guilty of sedition and fined RM2,000.
Yet not a whimper was heard from the likes of Chong nor those within his opposition coalition regarding this. Why the double standard? If he believes a law is bad, at least be consistent in fighting it. Don’t just cry foul when allies are prosecuted under its provisions, only to keep silent when opponents are. That is the very definition of hypocrisy, a quality that unfortunately many Malaysian politicians seem to share.
Simply put, the Sedition Act 1948, much like what the Internal Security Act 1960 once did, played and continues to play a critical role in keeping our nation safe from those who would question constitutional provisions agreed upon as part of the social contract during independence, or disrupt the prevailing racial and religious harmony we enjoy.
Nowadays with the proliferation of social media, harmful and malicious commentary threatening our delicate racial fabric abounds even more, particularly in cyberspace. So what law to effectively deal with these if not the Sedition Act? Certainly not some substitute race relations law that does not take into account the peculiarities of our own unique societal landscape. As such the Act is still very much relevant even now, and Malaysia’s continued peaceful existence since ethnic relations last deteriorated in the 1960s is a testament to the Act’s effectiveness in this regard.
And while I am aware of the argument that this law has not been consistently applied, and that certain individuals alleged to be close to the government of the day have supposedly committed sedition and got off scot free, this still isn’t a valid argument in favour of the law’s repeal. It is an argument, as with all penal laws, against misuse.
And that is the mischief which must be targeted for remedy if we are to avoid the same error committed by the repeal of the Internal Security Act, namely safeguards against abuse. In any event, hasn’t our Prime Minister already done this? After all, by recognising that the rakyat desire as much freedom of speech as possible but having due regard for a need to ensure public security and racial harmony, he had the Sedition Act amended instead, removing the Act’s prohibition on questioning the government as well as administration of justice.
Yet rather than be recognised for what it is, and its recent amendments celebrated, the law continues to be bemoaned, no less than by a sitting member of parliament. This, I reiterate, is most unbecoming, given his position and his certain knowledge of events that have transpired since the proposal for repeal was first mooted by our Prime Minister. So while he calls upon our Prime Minister to repeal the law, I for one call upon him to uphold it.
Faidhur Rahman Abdul Hadi