Bar Council: Cease Use Of Sedition Act 1948 - We Should Not Have To Walk On Eggshells In Malaysia

Malaysian Bar President, Christopher Leong

The Malaysian Bar is concerned and perturbed by the arrest of Eric Paulsen, Executive Director and Co-founder of Lawyers for Liberty, under the Sedition Act 1948, for reportedly having tweeted that “JAKIM is promoting extremism every Friday.

Government needs to address that if serious about extremism in Malaysia” [1].

It was reported that he was arrested by 20 police officers on 12 January 2015 and remanded in police custody pending investigations.

Eric Paulsen’s arrest is the latest case in the unabated use of the Sedition Act 1948. It was reported that certain quarters have contended that his comment insults Islam, and the police made the arrest “to ensure harmony in this multiracial society” [2].

It would appear that JAKIM is a reference to Jabatan Kemajuan Islam Malaysia, which is a Federal government authority or agency. A comment, including an adverse one, directed at such an agency cannot be construed as an insult to the religion. There does not appear to be anything in the tweet or comment reportedly made by Eric Paulsen that insults Islam as alleged.

It must be emphasised that an allegedly adverse statement directed at a government authority or agency, such as JAKIM, should never be criminalised. A government authority or agency is not beyond public scrutiny or comment, nor can it be immune from criticism. This is part and parcel of the nature of accountability of public authorities in democratic societies.

Further, as in a previous case concerning alleged comments regarding the burning of Bibles, the authorities should be consistent in the application of the law. If the authorities were to be consistent, the context of the tweet or comment and the intention of the maker should therefore be taken into account. In its ordinary and natural meaning, the tweet was an expression of concern directed at the Government to look into the actions of a government agency. Whether the concern as expressed is borne out is a matter for enquiry and rebuttal. There cannot be anything seditious about such comments.

It is also disconcerting and worrying to note that the Inspector General of Police had, in his tweets, reportedly described Eric Paulsen as “biadap” (meaning rude), “angkuh” (meaning arrogant), as well as “…ingat dia akan berjaya menghasut Rakyat Malaysia supaya menghancurkan semangat mesyarakat 1M’sia kita” [3]. This does not accord with the level of professionalism expected of the police, who are obliged to conduct an independent, neutral and objective investigation of the matter without any personal views or preconception.

This case is another example of the disadvantage to nation-building that is presented by laws such as the Sedition Act 1948. It seeks to cow, intimidate and punish because there are people who may be offended or angered by what is said. The Sedition Act 1948 encourages people who threaten violence, and who are not open to adverse comments or ideas. It endorses and nurtures a culture of aggression, intemperance and intolerance that does not engender the growth and maturity of this nation and its peoples, and provides an environment for extremism to thrive. Instead of fostering moderation and understanding, or safeguarding national harmony, the effect of the Sedition Act 1948 is to ensure that people perpetually walk on eggshells.

The Malaysian Bar calls on the authorities to cease their use of the Sedition Act 1948, and to recognise the right to freedom of speech and expression. The authorities must not use an abhorrent piece of legislation to protect themselves from fair comment and criticism.

Christopher Leong
President
Malaysian Bar

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