A new chill is descending over Malaysia as the government of Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak increasingly resorts to sedition laws to harass and jail opposition leaders and silence dissenting voices. This may well be the final nail in the coffin of Malaysia’s democracy.
To date, at least eleven people have been charged with or are being investigated under Malaysia’s infamous Sedition Act, an act that even the Prime Minister not so long ago agreed had no place in a democracy.
It is not mere coincidence that most of those charged with sedition are opposition members of Parliament or state assemblymen. The charges range from insulting the ruling party, questioning the decisions of rulers [hereditary constitutional heads of state] and the judiciary, defaming the Prime Minister and questioning the powers of state religious authorities.
A member of Parliament’s call to the people to rise up against racism and graft was deemed seditious. Another member of Parliament’s spoof of the political situation earned her sedition charges. Even a lawyer defending his client, Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, on charges of sodomy, has run afoul of sedition laws as has a 15-year-old schoolboy who hit the “Like” button on a Facebook page about Israel. And now, more ominously, a respected law professor has been charged “with inciting people to rebel against authority” for commenting on a constitutional issue, comments which the Bar Council called, “wholly within the purview of academic freedom and public discourse.”
And when the charges are as nebulous as “insults intended to provoke a breach of the peace”, it is clear that almost anything goes when it comes to sedition.
The message is clear: the Opposition, and by extension everyone else, may not question any of the decisions of the executive or the ruling party. And neither can they question any decision of the rulers in the lawful context of political discourse that is common to any democracy worthy of the name.
As Maria Chin Abdullah, chairperson of Election watchdog Bersih, noted, the Sedition Act is being used “as a weapon to silence dissenting voices…[and] is a clear infringement of the democratic spirit.”
Of course, all this is being cast by the government as an endeavour to preserve Malaysia’s racial and religious harmony and protect the nation. The Inspector-General of Police (IGP) denies charges of selective prosecution. His denials, however, ring hollow in the light of police inaction against those aligned with the ruling party, including the Minister of Home Affairs himself, who have behaved outrageously or made some of the most incendiary remarks ever heard in Malaysia.
In recent months, for example, right-wing extremists have offered a reward to slap a sitting opposition member of Parliament, stormed the [opposition controlled] Penang state assembly building, called for the burning of Bibles, threatened and insulted Malaysia’s minority ethnic and religious groups on numerous occasions and even called for the beheading of opposition members and the slaughter of non-Muslims with near impunity.
In the meantime, opposition members of Parliament and state assemblymen found guilty of sedition risk both imprisonment and disqualification from office.
A human rights activist and lawyer, P. Uthayakumar, who was found guilty of sedition (for writing a letter to the UK Prime Minister alleging the ethnic cleansing of Malaysia’s minority Indian community), is currently serving a two-and-a-half year sentence. A member of Parliament also lost his parliamentary seat and was barred from standing for elections following conviction for sedition.
Ironically, Prime Minster Najib had pledged in 2013 to reform draconian and anti-democratic legislation like the Sedition Act. As his popularity waned, however, he has resorted to the same laws to stave off challenges to his rule and to mollify the extremists upon whom he is increasingly dependent.
It is axiomatic in this modern era of democratic governance that there must be space for dissenting views, that both elected representatives and citizens alike should be able to question and even challenge their governments and the policies that are being pursued without fear of retribution or harassment. Sedition laws such as those in Malaysia are clearly anti-democratic, a tool of political repression, and have no place in society.
Sadly, the democracies of the world sleep on, mesmerized by the illusion of Malaysia as “a moderate Islamic democracy” as President Obama once described it, mute witnesses to the lights going out in a once democratic nation.