Sedition dragnet: Politics of the climate of fear

The use of anachronistic sedition law will hinder the development of an intellectual tradition in the country, says Mustafa K Anuar.

by Mustafa · 2 October 2014

While Malaysians in general and Selangor people in particular were heavily distracted by the Menteri Besar imbroglio, a number of people, some of whom constitute a Malaysia’s Who’s Who of civil society and the Opposition, were hauled by the authorities in a sedition dragnet. And, it appears, the arrests are continuing.

The use of this draconian, colonial-era piece of legislation may seem out of place for a country that gained independence from colonial British rule. Many Malaysians would have thought that the government would have eagerly thrown away oppressive colonial laws that were used against the colonised people. But the use, or rather misuse, of this law has been alarming – even the mere expression of a legal opinion on a constitutional matter pertaining to the Selangor impasse landed a person in trouble big time.

The way the 1948 law has been employed by the Malaysian authorities was so disturbing that the UN Commissioner for Human Rights felt compelled to issue a statement, calling on the Malaysian government to repeal or amend the anachronistic law so as to be “in line with its international human rights obligations”. The Commissioner also feared that the law may serve as a convenient tool to stifle criticism and dissent.

Similarly, some Asian NGOs also wrote to Prime Minister Najib Razak to express their deep concern over the clampdown on freedom of expression via the Sedition Act. They also reminded Najib of his well-publicised promise to repeal this undemocratic law.

Freedom of expression, as enshrined in the Federal Constitution, is jeopardised by this spate of sedition-related arrests, observes Aliran member Ronald Benjamin, because the very vocal and critical tend to be punished by this law. He is also concerned about what he deems as selective prosecution, given that a majority of those hauled up so far are critics of the government.

This curb on freedom of expression is particularly felt in Malaysian academia. The case of Universiti Malaya’s Azmi Sharom tramples upon the academic freedom to pursue truth and build knowledge that should be shared with the rest of humanity. Academics would be abandoning their social responsibility if they decide to censor or sugar-coat truth, especially if the truth is unpalatable to the powers that be. That is why Azmi urges his fellow academics to soldier on despite the climate of fear that the sedition law has brought upon the country.

Interestingly, student activists are in the forefront of the campaign to fight for academic freedom and civil liberties. Just as they had gathered around in support of Dr Azmi Sharom, these students are also planning, at the time of writing, to mount a protest in solidarity with Universiti Selangor’s Dr Abdul Aziz Bari should he be charged with offences under the colonial-era law.

It appears in this case that the use of the Sedition Act has only emboldened the resolve of certain quarters to still be vocal in their criticism and in their struggle for freedom of expression.

But academics aren’t alone in feeling the heat from the sedition law. Journalists are also exposed to their “occupational hazard” of reporting what they see and hear. Malaysiakini’s Susan Loone was the first ‘casualty‘ from the journalistic fraternity to be hauled up in the sedition-charge spree for merely doing what was expected of her as journalist, i.e. reporting what was said to her. The upshot of this episode is that freedom of the press, which has already witnessed a visible decline in recent years, is further jeopardised by the use of this colonial-era law.

It is said that the term “seditious tendency” in the law concerned can be so broad in definition that it allows for a variety of interpretations to the extent that it causes so much uncertainty and anxiety among Malaysians and consequently destabilises the country. At times, things can become really ludicrous as to invite cynicism among the rakyat, which in some ways only erodes the legitimacy and credibility of the federal government.

If the use of the Sedition Act is indeed to punish and stifle government critics, then it is an unintelligent and crass way of countering dissent. Former higher education minister Saifuddin Abdullah cautioned that government suppression of dissent among the rakyat will instead make the opposition more appealing to them.

Furthermore, the use of this anachronistic law goes a long way towards hampering the development of an intellectual tradition in the country, especially when some people start feeling overly cautious with their expression of ideas. And it doesn’t make things any better when the diversity of views and differences of opinion are frowned upon or even criminalised by the powers that be; such an approach only weakens democracy.

In short, the Sedition Act as it stands now makes us Malaysians much poorer in more ways than one.

Salam perjuangan

Mustafa K Anuar

Co-editor, Aliran e-newsletter