Human rights group views Sedition Act repeal with caution
KUALA LUMPUR, July 12 — An international human rights group is eyeing with caution the government’s plan to replace the Sedition Act 1948 with the National Harmony Act, saying that other “repressive” laws had been replaced with laws just as “bad or worse”.
Human Rights Watch said the Sedition Act was “clearly a rights-abusing law” and the replacement law needs to be “consistent with international human rights standards.”
Datuk Seri Najib Razak had yesterday announced the repeal of the 64-year-old law as part of his slew of legislative reforms to increase civil liberties initiated on the eve of Malaysia Day last year.
“To date, Prime Minister Najib’s law reform efforts have been mixed,” said Phil Robertson, deputy director of the watchdog’s Asia division.
“To be sure, repressive laws have been repealed but too often — as we saw with the Internal Security Act and the Police Act — the replacement legislation has been as bad or worse from a rights perspective.”
He said “the government should realise that change for change’s sake is not enough”, adding that the drafting of replacement laws “has gone on behind closed doors with little input from civil society.”
“Real reform” will only take place if the government engages and consults civil society groups in a transparent manner over the new National Harmony Act, said Robertson.
He said Malaysians should judge the latest law reform by whether it will actually bring about a “measurable and significant improvement in respect for their human rights”, which can only be done by comparison of both the Sedition Act and its replacement.
Najib had yesterday also said: “With this new Act, we would be better equipped to manage our national fault lines.”
“It will also help to strengthen national cohesion by protecting national unity and nurturing religious harmony,” he was quoted as saying by The Star during the Attorney-General Chambers dinner here.
Opposition lawmakers and civil society groups have long accused the government of using the British-enacted Sedition Act arbitrarily to limit dissent.
Speaking to The Malaysian Insider recently, Bar Council constitutional law committee chief Syahredzan Johan noted a trend for the authorities to cite the Sedition Act as an early measure in their investigations and prosecution because “it is the “easiest offence to satisfy”.
When announcing a raft of reforms last year, Najib admitted that the government’s move to allow greater civil freedom was “risky, but we are doing this for our survival.”
“No individual will ever be detained simply due to political ideology,” he had said in his Malaysia Day message.
The Najib administration has this year repealed the Internal Security Act 1960, lifted three Emergency Declarations and enacted the Peaceful Assembly Act to regulate public gatherings.
The government has also scrapped the need for annual printing licences in the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 and lifted the ban on student participation in politics through amendments to the Universities and University Colleges Act 1971.