Mong Palatino

blogging about the philippine left and southeast asian politics since 2004


@mongster is a manila-based activist, former philippine legislator, and blogger/analyst of asia-pacific affairs.

Written for The Diplomat

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak has made two contrasting pledges with regard to the Sedition Act of 1948. First, during the election period in 2012, he vowed to repeal the archaic law. Then, two years later, he announced that the law would be strengthened to preserve domestic harmony. Last Friday, Najib’s allies in parliament upheld the latter when they passed a bill that made several amendments to the Sedition Act.

Some government critics will no doubt be relieved that the amendments included the removal of provisions that make it seditious to criticize the government and the judiciary. Overall, though, the new law represents a greater threat to human rights and free speech. The maximum jail term for general sedition cases has been increased from three to seven years. A new provision allows for a penalty of up to 20 years for seditious activities that result in physical harm or destruction of property.

The government argues that the new law is necessary to prevent malicious individuals from using the Internet to cause divisions in society. In particular, the law is said to be the government’s response to the demand of certain groups in Sabah and Sarawak to secede from the Malaysian Federation.

Home Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi admitted this in a statement given to media. “Last time, there was no Internet and non-verbal communication over social media. Those days, we didn’t have groups of people inciting people (in Sabah and Sarawak) to get out of Malaysia.”

But the government’s determination to maintain unity was affirmed at the expense of establishing a environment conducive to a free media.

One of the amendments empowers the Sessions Court to issue a prohibition order on a seditious publication that would “likely lead to bodily injury or damage to property” or that “appears to be promoting feeling of ill will, hostility or hatred” between different races or classes on the grounds of religion.”

The Institute of Journalists Malaysia (IJM) warned in a statement that the ambiguity of the terms “likely” and “appears” could be open to abuse and misinterpretation. It also finds the prohibition order to be “an unfairly harsh punishment,” especially since it has no expiry date.

Another amendment allows the court to issue an order to remove seditious content from publications issued by electronic means, such as online publications. Those who are found to be “propagating” seditious messages will be prohibited from accessing any electronic device.

The IJM said this particular provision will have a negative impact on online journalism: “The inability to access tools of the trade will mean online journalists’ careers are at risk and threatens the existence of legitimate news portals. The prohibition on ‘propagating’ seditious speech or their publication also means that online news portals cannot share allegedly seditious remarks on social media and RSS feeds will cease to exist, further silencing discussion on policies and issues which are of national interest.”

For Janarthani Arumugam, president of EMPOWER, a media advocacy group, the term “propagation” is too broad, and could be invoked to silence online users: “One assumes that a retweet and a Facebook share would be considered as propagation. Would these broad and vague terms also make it an offence for journalists, activists, and ordinary people to quote allegedly “seditious words” when commenting on or criticizing them in any publication?”

Even the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein is concerned about these provisions: “These proposals are particularly worrying given that the Sedition Act has been applied in many instances to curb the legitimate exercise of freedom of expression in Malaysia.”

He was probably referring to the scores of critics, journalists, academics, activists, and opposition politicians who had been arrested in recent months for alleged sedition.

The new Sedition Act makes it possible for citizens to freely criticize government officials but it doesn’t mean it has ceased to be a tool for repression. For former law minister Datuk Zaid Ibrahim, laws like the Sedition Act “are made not to maintain harmony, but to maintain the government in power.”

Malaysian Opposition Rallies for Anwar

Written for The Diplomat

Ten thousand Malaysians joined the #KitaLawan (We Fight) rally last Saturday to press for the release of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim. It was Malaysia’s first major rally of the year, and was organized in response to the high court decision affirming the sodomy conviction of Anwar.

Anwar is serving a five-year sentence after he was found guilty of the sodomy charge filed by a former aide. But Anwar said the case was politically motivated and he accused the judges of “bowing to the powers” in “murdering the judiciary.”

The number of people who attended the rally was impressive, since the police had earlier warned organizers that they might be arrested for sedition.

“If they are gathering to intimidate the government, and others, this is wrong,” said police Deputy Inspector-General Noor Rashid Ibrahim.

But this didn’t deter ordinary Malaysians from showing up in the streets and gathering in front of the Kuala Lumpur City Center. To their credit, the police also exercised restraint during the actual event and allowed the program to end peacefully.

“We are proud to hold the record of (our rallies) causing no damage to public property, not having ever caused unrest and we have gathered with noble intentions, and shown courage to resist continued oppression,” said Batu MP Tian Chua as reported by alternative news magazine Malaysiakini.

The rally also overcame the reported reluctance of some members of the opposition to give full support to the event. Some even instructed opposition politicians to focus on constituency work instead of joining the march.

But Malaysian NGOs, activists, and concerned citizens who marched in the streets showed that the #KitaLawan rally was more than just a pro-Anwar mobilization; instead, it also became a political event that united various groups against the government of Prime Minister Najib Razak.

Opposition coalition president Wan Azizah Wan Ismail was inspired by the crowd that joined on March 7.

“At first we were saddened, but now our spirits have been renewed and we will continue the struggle. Anwar’s imprisonment has given us more push to continue our struggle,” she said.

Nurul Izzah Anwar, a second-term MP and the opposition leader’s eldest daughter, opined in an interview with Global Voices that #KitaLawan represented the aspiration of Malaysians to restore democratic rule in the country. “Any regime that imprisons it’s opposition leader does not practice democracy. The rally is a manifestation of the undercurrent of support for reforms and change in this country. In particular the change of the ruling elite.”

#KitaLawan rallies were also held by Malaysian migrants and students in other countries. In London, one of the speakers in the solidarity action was former British minister of state for trade Richard Needham.

But not everybody was happy with the Saturday rally. Gerakan Youth chief Tan Keng Liang urged the police to arrest the organizers of the “illegal assembly” and for causing traffic jams and livelihood losses in the city. “They have no right to disrupt the lives of other Malaysians. If they wish to demonstrate, then do it peacefully in a stadium,” he said.

Last Saturday’s #KitaLawan rally was smaller compared with the hundreds of thousands that joined the Bersih and Reformasi democracy actions in the past. But the movement is still starting and it has the potential to gather and mobilize a broader segment of the population, especially those who are already disappointed with the leadership of the ruling coalition. This is a promising year for Malaysia’s democratic forces.

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