Maintaining unity minus Sedition Act

Prime Minister Najib Razak waving the national flag during Malaysia Day and Independence Day celebrations in Kuala Lumpur in 2011. The challenge ahead for Mr Najib in replacing the Sedition Act is in assuaging Malay fears about their political future without the sedition law.

A Facebook picture of a sex-blogging couple partaking of bak kut teh, a Chinese pork rib soup dish, and calling on Muslims in Malaysia to break their fast with the dish during Ramadan was posted last week.

Alvin Tan and Vivian Lee, who gained notoriety for uploading their sex video online last year, said that the posting was meant to be a joke. But no one was amused, especially the Malays and Muslims, who were offended by the insults to their religion and their community.

While many Muslims and non-Muslims expressed outrage over the posting, the attention of others in the community was focused on the Sedition Act. They wanted the government to use the law to deal with such violations of their sensitivities.

And true enough, the two were charged at the Kuala Lumpur Sessions court yesterday on three charges for the Facebook posting and uploading pornographic pictures in their blogs. The charges were under the Sedition Act, the Penal Code and the Film Censorship Act 2002. If convicted, they face up to three years' jail and a fine of RM5,000 (S$1,970).

What is significant in this episode is that the action of the sex bloggers comes smack amid a political debate on whether Prime Minister Najib Razak should keep the Sedition Act and introduce replacement laws for the repealed Emergency Ordinance and the Internal Security Act.

The Sedition Act remains the last piece of legislation that Datuk Seri Najib has yet to repeal after promising to do so as part of his transformation programme.

There have been voices against the move to repeal the Sedition Act within Umno, the linchpin of the ruling Barisan Nasional.

The most recent remarks were made by Home Minister and Umno vice-president Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, who said on July 7 the legislation must stay to protect Malay rights and Malay rulers.

Although the Cabinet has since met and announced that it would back Mr Najib in repealing the Act and replacing it with the National Harmony Act, there are concerns as to how he would go about doing so, given the sentiments on the Malay ground.

Ex-NUS law scholar and girlfriend post explicit videos onlineClick on thumbnail to view (Photos: Internet)
For more photos, click here.
Blog taken down due to parental pressureClick on thumbnail to view (Photos: AsiaOne)
Ex-NUS law scholar and girlfriend post explicit videos onlineClick on thumbnail to view (Photos: Internet)
For more photos, click here.

The Prime Minister, who is also Umno president, has to keep in mind several elements in dealing with the matter.

First, the Sedition Act, enacted in 1948 to deal with the Malayan Emergency and the communist threat, contains provisions that protect the four core interests of the Malays as guaranteed in the Constitution. These are Islam as the religion of the federation; Malay as the national language; the special position of Malays; and the sovereignty of Malay rulers.

Certainly, the Facebook episode will be used to strengthen the argument held by sections of the Malay community that the Sedition Act should be retained as the sex bloggers' act was seen as engendering "the feeling of ill will and hostility between the different races or classes".

Second, on the surface, Dr Ahmad Zahid's remarks betray his disagreement with the Prime Minister's proposal to abolish the sedition law. The Home Minister's words were actually a signal from the Umno right-wingers to Mr Najib that he should go easy in his plans to repeal the law and in liberalising the economy.

There will be resistance if he were to change the age-old policies that favour the Malays, who form 55 per cent of the 28 million population. More importantly, the signal from Dr Ahmad Zahid and the right-wingers is for the party to move on in maintaining Malay supremacy instead of carrying out reforms to level the playing field for the non-Malays.

Third, the Sedition Act has long been criticised as being outmoded as it was a British colonial legacy, enacted to deal with the communist threat during the 1948-1960 Emergency. It was meant to quell opposition against the British government.

Critics say that the law strikes fear among the populace in exercising freedom of expression because of the vague definition of what constitutes sedition and the arbitrariness of determining what is actually "seditious tendency".

Critics say the sedition law has been mostly used against opposition politicians and dissidents for criticisms deemed to be incitement of hatred towards the government or the Malay rulers.

They point out that others who incite religious hatred, such as supremacist leader Ibrahim Ali of the right-wing group Perkasa, who called for the burning of Malay-language Bibles that contain the word Allah for the Christian God, are not prosecuted.

This gives rise to the allegation that the government practises selective prosecution when it comes to the Sedition Act.

Given these contending elements, Mr Najib may seem to be in a quandary as to how to pursue his proposal to abolish the sedition law. On the one hand, he has to make good his pledge, made in July last year, to repeal the Sedition Act if he wants to retain his reformist credentials.

On the other hand, he is also mindful of the need to protect the four core interests of the Malays. Hence, the likelihood is that Mr Najib would defer any substantive action to repeal the sedition law until after the Umno general assembly later this year, when he has secured the party presidency that carries with it the right to be prime minister.

The challenge ahead for Mr Najib in replacing the Sedition Act with the proposed National Harmony Act is in assuaging Malay fears about their political future without the sedition law. It is certain that his legal drafters would retain in the new legislation the four core interests of the Malays that are in the sedition law.

Then he has to widen the scope of the law to cover issues that affect national cohesion and unity in a plural society like Malaysia. The new law should nurture the spirit of harmony and mutual respect among the various races that he himself has envisioned.

While he is committed to respect freedom of expression by allowing some form of criticism of the government in the new law, he still has to address concerns among civil society groups that the National Harmony Act may turn out to be as repressive as the one it seeks to replace.

salim@sph.com.sg