Don't use Sedition Act to maintain power, Umno told

KUALA LUMPUR - Former Malaysian prime minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has warned Umno not to use the Sedition Act as a tool to keep it in power as the strength of the party comes from the people.

While supporting the retention of the Act, the former Umno president said that if the people did not support the party, no laws would be able to prevent it from losing power.

"I support this decision. I support the retention of any law that maintains the harmony of the country, upholds the Constitution and that makes sure the social contract is adhered to," said Tun Abdullah, widely known as Pak Lah.

"But in our excitement to retain the Act, I would like to remind Umno members that the Act is not a tool to keep the party in power. If the people do not support us, there is no law on God's earth that can save the party from losing power," he said in a statement yesterday.

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak declared at the Umno general assembly that the Sedition Act will not only be retained, but also strengthened, abandoning his pledge to pursue liberal reforms when he came into power five years ago.

Datuk Seri Najib, who is Umno president, said in his policy speech at the annual meeting that the Act would also be enforced against those who called for the secession of Sabah and Sarawak from Malaysia.

"Having consulted party leaders, including my deputy, vice-presidents, non-governmental organisations and the grassroots, as the Prime Minister, I have taken the decision to retain the Sedition Act," he said.

Mr Najib said two new clauses would be added to the law. One will protect the "sanctity of Islam" and ensure all religions are not insulted, and the other will criminalise calls for Sabah and Sarawak to secede from the majority Malay nation.

The Prime Minister began democratic reforms by doing away with the Internal Security Act - which allows for detention without trial - in 2011. But efforts to repeal the Sedition Act, which critics say is used to stifle dissent, has faced stern opposition from the overwhelming majority of Umno divisions and right-wing Malay groups.

Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin had said when opening the women's and youth wing assemblies on Tuesday night that the Sedition Act must be strengthened instead of repealed, a call that was echoed by the two wings on Wednesday.

They had insisted that the majority of Malaysians want the Sedition Act to curb incitement of sensitive racial and religious issues.

Mr Najib also tabled a proposal in Parliament on Wednesday to enact an anti-terror law, which the government said will have "preventive measures", an element the opposition warned could be interpreted for the use of clamping down on political dissent.

The Umno general assembly, with the theme, "United Malay", was attended by more than 2,750 party members nationwide, as well as representatives from the other parties of the Barisan Nasional coalition and political parties of other countries.

Influential former premier Mahathir Mohamad, who has been firmly against the repeal of the Sedition Act, was in the audience yesterday, despite saying earlier this week that he may not attend due to health reasons.

Dr Mahathir had said in August that he could no longer support the Prime Minister's policies, which he claimed were wrecking the country.

This article by The Straits Times was published in MyPaper, a free, bilingual newspaper published by Singapore Press Holdings.