Pundits laud sedition law repeal, wary about replacement
KUALA LUMPUR, July 13 — Putrajaya's plan to repeal the Sedition Act 1948, widely panned as a tool to curb political dissent, drew mild applause from pundits who advised the government to fully consult all civil rights groups if it was serious about legislative reforms.
Law experts and former human rights commissioners told The Malaysian Insider they were wary about the prime minister's proposed National Harmony Act to replace the 64-year-old sedition law as part of his raft of legislative reforms to increase civil liberties initiated on the eve of Malaysia Day last year.
“The Sedition Act has always been an affront to democracy and represents an unjustified and unreasonable restriction to the rakyat's freedom of speech and expression guaranteed by the Federal Constitution,” civil liberties lawyer Syahredzan Johan told The Malaysian Insider in an emailed response yesterday.
He held back comment on the replacement law, saying there was too little known about it at the moment but added that the Najib administration must fully explain and get comprehensive input from stakeholders instead of rushing the law draft through debates in Parliament if it wanted to give meaning to its legislative reforms.
“Passing laws in unholy haste, as we have seen in the Peaceful Assembly Act, the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act, the Evidence (Amendment) Act (No 2) and many others should [not] be repeated,” he reminded.
The laws Syahredzan named were among a slew of enactments passed in Parliament last year within a span of two days, overriding dissenting views from opposition lawmakers who warned of flaws that are only now being exposed.
Critics have slammed the amended Evidence Act, enforced last month, for providing the government a way to curb online dissent by making Internet anonymity more difficult to maintain and preventing ignorance from being used as an excuse — opening wide the door to a flurry of defamation lawsuits.
Human Rights Movement (Proham), a watchdog group made up of former human rights commissioners, echoed the lawyer's call for comprehensive consultation and urged the government put up its draft of the proposed law for public feedback besides talking to other civil liberties groups including the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam), the Bar Council and Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram).
“In other words, there must be full consultation and research and they must tell us how they are going to do this. Is the law going to be on the government websites, for example, or will they call a meeting with the major groups with vested interests?” asked Tan Sri Ramon Navaratnam, one of Proham's leaders.
“Consultation must be comprehensive and meaningful and it shouldn't be a rushed thing otherwise all the good gets negated and becomes counter-productive,” he added.
Proham secretary-general Datuk Dr Denison Jayasooria went a step further and asked if a new law to deal with racial sensitivies was needed for multicultural Malaysia.
“Is this is really necessary as there (are) sufficient provisions in the Penal Code which might be viewed as adequate in addressing insentive racial and religious matters?” he said.
He suggested the federal government could boost its existing human rights record by ratifying global agreements, such as the United Nations' International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD).
“Further delay continues to reinforce the perception that Malaysia is not really serious in addressing racism and discrimination from an institutional reform dimension,” Denison said.
Universiti Malaya law lecturer Azmi Shahrom voiced similar scepticism on Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak's latest announcement to replace the archaic sedition law, which many have labelled draconian for being vague and providing the government a means to prosecute individuals who question authority on the flimsiest reasons.
Azmi, a vocal critic of the Sedition Act, bluntly said the government should rid the British-enacted law “completely”.
“Based on the record, liberalisation is only on the surface,” he said.
Najib announced on Wednesday night his intention to repeal the Sedition Act 1948, in his latest move to regain the momentum for reforms ahead of elections that must be held soon.
Following the prime minister’s Malaysia Day address last year, the Najib administration has repealed the Internal Security Act 1960 (ISA), 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 University and University Colleges Act 1971.