Malaysian leader Najib Razak plans to repeal legislation that curbs free speech and has been used against opposition politicians, the latest colonial-era law to be scrapped or replaced before elections due by early next year.
The Sedition Act, enacted under British rule in 1948, will be replaced with legislation aimed at preventing incitement of religious or ethnic hatred, Najib said late yesterday.
“It’s encouraging,” Ong Kian Ming, a political analyst at Kuala Lumpur’s UCSI University, said by phone. “Primarily, it has been used against opposition politicians. This is part of Najib’s larger political transformation agenda. He’s trying to regain momentum.”
Lim Guan Eng, leader of the opposition Democratic Action Party, was jailed under the act in the 1990s after criticizing the government’s handling of rape allegations against a former chief minister. Karpal Singh, chairman of Lim’s party, is currently being tried under the law after threatening to sue the sultan of Malaysia’s Perak state.
“The Sedition Act represents a bygone era in our country,” Najib said in an e-mailed statement. “The new National Harmony Act will balance the right of freedom of expression as enshrined in the constitution, while at the same time ensuring that all races and religions are protected.”
This is the latest in a series of decades-old laws Najib has said he’ll change as he seeks to boost his party’s popularity in the face of a resurgent opposition led by Anwar Ibrahim. His National Front coalition is fighting to hold onto power after five decades of unbroken rule, having won re-election in 2008 by its narrowest margin since independence.
The government earlier this year repealed the Internal Security Act, first introduced in the 1960s to combat communist insurgents, with new legislation curbing how long police can hold suspects without trial. Najib has also revamped media laws after promising to boost personal freedoms.
His changes to public assembly rules have proved more controversial with the introduction of a ban on street protests. About 50,000 people challenged this by holding an illegal demonstration in Kuala Lumpur in April to campaign for cleaner and fairer elections. Three opposition leaders, including Anwar, have since been charged under the new law after allegedly participating in the march.
“Reform will only be fulfilled if the Malaysian government ensures the proposed National Harmony Act is consistent with international human rights standards,” Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at New York-based Human Rights Watch, said in an e-mailed statement. “To date, Najib’s law reform efforts have been mixed.”