Malaysia’s Sedition Law Needs to Stay, Former Minister Says

Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak should not proceed with replacing the country’s Sedition Act, former law minister Syed Hamid Albar said, expressing support for a document that curbs free speech and has been used against opposition politicians.

Malaysia needs laws allowing the government to contain “domestic aggression” and new legislation limiting that ability would be a concern, Syed Hamid, 70, said in an interview in Kuala Lumpur yesterday. Najib needs to find a way to satisfy those who want the Sedition Act to stay and others who are calling for him to repeal it, he said.

Najib described the Sedition Act in July 2012 as the representative of a “bygone era” and said he’d replace it with legislation aimed at preventing incitement of religious or ethnic hatred. Last month, his office said there won’t be a rush to change it, and Amnesty International and Malaysian civil groups have called on him to honor his promise as more people were charged under the law in recent months.

“The Sedition Act has got its purpose,” said Syed Hamid, who was law minister from 1990 to 1995 and has also headed the foreign and home affairs ministries. “So long as our legal system is good, the judiciary is independent, we have access to legal process, then we need not fear. The rule of law is there, and I think your savior is the rule of law, not by abolishing” the act, he said.

A group of Malaysian lawyers protested against the act this month and called for a moratorium on its use, which dates back to 1948 when Malaysia was under British rule. The law mandates jail sentences of at least three years for words deemed seditious, including those that “excite dissatisfaction” against the government.

Fearful Climate

“The Malaysian government’s widespread use of the Sedition Act is not just an attempt to silence certain individuals but is creating a wider climate of fear,” Richard Bennett, Asia-Pacific director for Amnesty International, said in an Oct. 27 statement. “The prime minister should stick to his promise -- the draconian Sedition Act must be repealed or amended to bring it in line with international standards.”

Two people have been convicted of sedition this year, with at least a dozen others currently facing charges for peacefully expressing their views, according to Amnesty. Scores more have been investigated for so-called seditious activities, it said.

The government in 2012 repealed the Internal Security Act, first introduced in the 1960s to combat communist insurgents and which allowed indefinite detention without trial, with new legislation curbing how long police can hold suspects without trial.

‘Appreciate History’

Syed Hamid said he didn’t agree that the ISA should have been abolished. Other countries are introducing laws such as the Patriot Act in the U.S., and Malaysia should not be removing rules that allow it to “prevent certain things from happening.”

“I will not be apologetic about it,” he said of his support for the two sets of legislation. “You must appreciate history, you must appreciate what has kept us what we are today and don’t be too quick to jump into something we do not know.”

The government hasn’t started drafting the National Harmony Act, according to a statement from the Prime Minister’s Office last month. That is the legislation Najib proposed as a replacement to the Sedition Act that he said would protect freedom of expression.

“You want to introduce new things? It’s alright because new situations and circumstances have appeared,” Syed Hamid said. “But it doesn’t mean that you get rid of the old.”

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