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Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Why the Sedition Act should be repealed? – Gurdial Singh Nijar



It was in fact the prime minister's (PM) proposal for the abolition of the Sedition Act  – repeated thrice – that triggered the intense debate that has followed since.
The PM's intent was reinforced by the setting up of a committee under the purview of his office to draft a replacement law.
Since then the PM's intent has been ebbing and flowing in tandem with political noises made by various members of his coalition party and other groups.
Nonetheless, let me offer the following reasons why this law should be abolished.
This is a 1948 Act and first imposed by the British. Its provisions are much the same except for an amendment in 1970 (which introduced amendments relating to the protection of bumiputera rights under article 153 of the Federal Constitution, the monarchy and the preeminent position of the national language).
First, the Act was enacted by the British primarily to subjugate any challenge to its rule. Freedom fighters and nationalists in all its colonies were charged by the colonial authorities under identical sedition laws.
Gandhi was  imprisoned  in 1922 for six years for "disaffection". Gandhi described this law as pernicious, meant to subdue nationalist leaders, and asked that he be convicted as he would rather go to prison than be forced to submit to a cruel colonial authority.
Nearer home, under the 1936 Sedition law of Singapore, Malayan nationalists – such as Samad Ismail and Ahmad Boestamam – were charged  for much the same reason, as were eight Singapore university students who criticized British and American imperialism in Southeast Asia in the 1950s.
Why would we want to continue with this act of bondage of our population?
Secondly, the provisions of the Act are vague and broad and allow persons to be charged on flimsy grounds.
One former Attorney General says that the present spate of charges by the current AG under the Act smacks of persecution. This is made possible because of the vast discretion given to the AG to determine what constitutes "seditious tendency" under the vague, subjective and broad provisions of the Act.
The Act makes it an offence to cause "disaffection" and "hostility" among classes, races and such like. These provisions were described by legal commentator Edward Jenks more than  70 years ago as "the vaguest and arbitrary in criminal law."
The intention of an accused in making the statement or the act is not relevant under the law. This undermines the fundamental basis of criminal liability.
Nor does the prosecution need to show that the statement could lead to some disorder or violence.
In other words a person who makes a mere critical statement not intended to create any disorder or violence, and does not in fact lead to any such disorder, can be convicted.
An academic has been charged and in danger of being convicted for making just such a comment. Two young students have been jailed under this law.
Gandhi at his trial said that "affection" cannot be bought but must be earned. Even a Cabinet member has broken ranks to condemn the use of the Act against an academic.
A law that attracts such widespread condemnation and is based on vacuous provisions lacks validity in the public eye. It brings the law and those who use it into disrepute. It should not be part of the legal architecture of a country based on the rule of law in a functioning democracy.
Thirdly, the charges against a wide cross section of the population for comments made on the country's affairs, sends a chilling effect and subverts the democratic process and the freedom of speech guaranteed by the Federal Constitution.
It undermines academic and other legitimate freedoms. Thus, it hinders independent thought, enquiry and expression. This will create a servile and subjugated society ill-equipped to meet the country's future challenges in a globalised world.
Fourthly, there are a plethora of other penal laws that can be easily utilised or adapted against persons who seek to create disorder or violence in society by their comments and acts. This includes matters addressed by the amendments to the Act – article 153 on rights of bumiputeras, the institution of the monarchy, and the primary role of the national language.
Although the Act now allows a critique of implementation issues, the charges show that it cuts out all discussion. This consigns discussion of critical issues to secret dark cloistered corners.
Surely this endangers values we hold dear in a democratic society. Or do the powers-that-be view our society so fragile that it cannot vindicate democracy through healthy debate and discussion?
Is the only way of protecting our democracy the criminalisation of our citizenry who express views of current concern? Or are we like the proverbial ostrich that buries its head oblivious that the rest of its body is exposed and vulnerable?
Gurdial Singh Nijar is a Law Faculty professor at Universiti Malaya. TMI

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