Sedition Act (Malaysia)

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The allegations of a political conspiracy against former Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia Anwar Ibrahim led to charges of sedition under the Sedition Act against his lead counsel, Karpal Singh.

The Sedition Act in Malaysia is a law prohibiting discourse deemed as seditious. The act was originally enacted by the colonial authorities of British Malaya in 1948. The act criminalises speech with "seditious tendency", including that which would "bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against" the government or engender "feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races". The meaning of "seditious tendency" is defined in section 3 of the Sedition Act 1948 and in substance it is similar to the English common law definition of sedition, with modifications to suit local circumstances.[1] The Malaysian definition includes the questioning of certain portions of the Constitution of Malaysia, namely those pertaining to the Malaysian social contract, such as Article 153, which deals with special rights for the bumiputra (Malays and other indigenous peoples, who comprise over half the Malaysian population).

History[edit]

The law was introduced by the British in 1948, the same year that the autonomous Federation of Malaya came into being, with the intent of curbing opposition to colonial rule.[2] The law remained on the statute books through independence in 1957, and the merger with Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore that formed Malaysia.

The Federal Constitution of Malaya and later Malaysia permitted Parliament to impose restrictions on the freedom of speech granted by the Constitution. After the May 13 Incident, when racial riots in the capital of Kuala Lumpur led to at least 200 deaths, the government amended the Constitution to expand the scope of limitations on freedom of speech. The Constitution (Amendment) Act 1971 named Articles 152, 153, and 181, and also Part III of the Constitution as specially protected, permitting Parliament to pass legislation that would limit dissent with regard to these provisions pertaining to the social contract. (The social contract is essentially a quid pro quo agreement between the Malay and non-Malay citizens of Peninsular Malaysia; in return for granting the non-Malays citizenship at independence, symbols of Malay authority such as the Malay monarchy became national symbols, and the Malays were granted special economic privileges.) With this new power, Parliament then amended the Sedition Act accordingly. The new restrictions also applied to Members of Parliament, overruling Parliamentary immunity; at the same time, Article 159, which governs Constitutional amendments, was amended to entrench the "sensitive" Constitutional provisions; in addition to the consent of Parliament, any changes to the "sensitive" portions of the Constitution would now have to pass the Conference of Rulers, a body comprising the monarchs of the Malay states.[3]

These later amendments were harshly criticised by the opposition parties in Parliament, who had campaigned for greater political equality for non-Malays in the 1969 general election. Despite their opposition, the ruling Alliance (later Barisan Nasional) coalition government passed the amendments, having maintained the necessary two-thirds Parliamentary majority.[3] In Britain, the laws were condemned, with The Times of London stating they would "preserve as immutable the feudal system dominating Malay society" by "giving this archaic body of petty constitutional monarchs incredible blocking power"; the move was cast as hypocritical, given that Deputy Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak had spoken of "the full realization that important matters must no longer be swept under the carpet..."[4]

Provisions[edit]

The Sedition Act would be unconstitutional, as the Constitution guarantees freedom of speech, without Article 10(2) of the Constitution, which permits Parliament to enact "such restrictions as it deems necessary or expedient in the interest of the security of the Federation or any part thereof, friendly relations with other countries, public order or morality and restrictions designed to protect the privileges of Parliament or of any Legislative Assembly or to provide against contempt of court, defamation, or incitement to any offence". Article 10(4) also states that "Parliament may pass law prohibiting the questioning of any matter, right, status, position, privilege, sovereignty or prerogative established or protected by the provisions of Part III, article 152, 153 or 181 otherwise than in relation to the implementation thereof as may be specified in such law".

These portions of the Constitution have been criticised by human rights advocates, who charge that "under the Malaysian Constitution, the test is not whether or not the restriction is necessarily but the much lower standard of whether or not Parliament deems the restrictions necessary or even expedient. There is no objective requirement that the restriction actually is necessary or expedient and the latter standard is much lower than that of necessity."[2]

Section 4 of the Sedition Act specifies that anyone who "does or attempts to do, or makes any preparation to do, or conspires with any person to do" an act with seditious tendency, such as uttering seditious words, or printing, publishing or importing seditious literature, is guilty of sedition. It is also a crime to possess a seditious publication without a "lawful excuse". The act defines sedition itself as anything which "when applied or used in respect of any act, speech, words, publication or other thing qualifies the act, speech, words, publication or other thing as having a seditious tendency".

Under section 3(1), those acts defined as having a seditious tendency are acts with a tendency:

Section 3(2) provides certain exceptions, providing examples of speech which cannot be deemed seditious. It is not seditious to "show that any Ruler has been misled or mistaken in any of his measures", nor is it seditious "to point out errors or defects in the Government or Constitution as by law established". It is also not seditious "to attempt to procure by lawful means the alteration of any matter in the territory of such Government as by law established" or "to point out, with a view to their removal, any matters producing or having a tendency to produce feelings of ill-will and enmity between different races or classes of the population of the Federation". However, the act explicitly states that any matter covered by subsection (1)(f), namely those matters pertaining to the Malaysian social contract, cannot have these exceptions applied to it.

Section 3(3) goes on to state that "the intention of the person charged at the time he did or attempted (a seditious act) ... shall be deemed to be irrelevant if in fact the act had, or would, if done, have had, or the words, publication or thing had a seditious tendency". This latter provision has been criticised for overruling mens rea, a legal principle stating that a person cannot be guilty of a crime if he did not have the intent to commit a crime.[2]

A person found guilty of sedition may be sentenced to three years in jail, a RM5,000 fine, or both.

Implementation[edit]

In 2003, then Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi threatened to charge opponents of a change in educational policy with sedition.

In recent times, the law has invoked to quell political opposition to the government. Famously in 2000, Marina Yusoff, a former vice president of the National Justice Party (Parti Keadilan Nasional) was charged with sedition for alleging that the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the leading party in the ruling Barisan Nasional coalition, had provoked the massacres of Chinese in the May 13 Incident. The editor of an opposition organ was charged with sedition for alleging a government conspiracy against Anwar Ibrahim, a former Deputy Prime Minister, had led to his political downfall; Anwar's lead counsel, Karpal Singh, who was also deputy chairman of the opposition Democratic Action Party (DAP), had also been charged with sedition after claiming Anwar had been poisoned by "people in high places". Lim Guan Eng, a former Member of Parliament from the DAP, had likewise been found guilty of sedition in 1998 for accusing the Attorney General of failing to properly handle a case where the Chief Minister of Malacca had been charged with statutory rape of a schoolgirl.[2]

In 2003, the act was also invoked by then Deputy Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi (who succeeded Mahathir bin Mohamad as Prime Minister of Malaysia later that year); Abdullah stated that the government would charge those who opposed the change in educational policy emphasising the teaching of science and mathematics in English with sedition. That same year, the online publication Malaysiakini was temporarily shut down under the Sedition Act after it published a letter criticising Malay special rights and compared the Youth wing of a government party to the Ku Klux Klan.[2] Previously in 1978, the Sedition Act had been invoked in another case of educational policy, when Mark Koding argued in Parliament that the government ought to close down Chinese and Tamil vernacular schools.[5]

Human rights advocates have alleged that the Sedition Act has an "excessively vague" definition of sedition. These critics charge that this vagueness constitutes "an invitation to abuse and authorities may seek to apply them in situations which bear no relation to the original purpose of the law". Although they concede that the act provides exceptions that would "clarify and narrow the scope of the offence", they allege that "Any rule which needs an exception in favour of pointing out that the rulers are misled is quite obviously unacceptably vague." It is also claimed that the Malaysian judiciary has "given an extremely wide interpretation to the crime of sedition", with the result of a chilling effect on open dissent to government policies.[2]

In 2006, the DAP, which had been a vocal opponent of the Sedition Act and the Internal Security Act (ISA), filed a police report against UMNO, whose annual general assembly had been noted for its heated rhetoric, with delegates making statements such as "Umno is willing to risk lives and bathe in blood to defend the race and religion. Don't play with fire. If they (non-Malays) messed with our rights, we will mess with theirs."[6] In response, Information Minister Zainuddin Maidin said that this indicated that the Sedition Act continued to remain relevant to Malaysian society. He also denied that the government intentionally used the act to silence dissent or to advance particular political interests.[7]

See also[edit]

Notes and references[edit]

  1. ^ See for example James Fitzjames Stephen's "Digest of the Criminal Law" which states that under English law "a seditious intention is an intention to bring into hatred or contempt, or to exite disaffection against the person of His Majesty, his heirs or successors, or the government and constitution of the United Kingdom, as by law established, or either House of Parliament, or the administration of justice, or to excite His Majesty's subjects to attempt otherwise than by lawful means, the alteration of any matter in Church or State by law established, or to incite any person to commit any crime in disturbance of the peace, or to raise discontent or disaffection amongst His Majesty's subjects, or to promote feelings of ill-will and hostility between different classes of such subjects." The Malaysian definition has of course been modified to suit local circumstance and in particular, it includes acts or things done "to question any matter, right, status, position, privilege, sovereignty or prerogative established or protected by the provisions of Part III of the Federal Constitution or Article 152, 153 or 181 of the Federal Constitution."
  2. ^ a b c d e f Article 19 Global Campaign for Free Expression (2003). "Memorandum on Malaysian Sedition Act 1948". Retrieved November 25, 2006.
  3. ^ a b Khoo, Boo Teik (1995). Paradoxes of Mahathirism, pp. 104–106. Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-967-65-3094-3.
  4. ^ Emery, Fred (Nov. 8, 1969). "Malaysia unity call against a background of fear", p. 7. The Times.
  5. ^ Singh, Bhag (Dec. 12, 2006). Seditious speeches. Malaysia Today.
  6. ^ Lopez, Leslie (Nov. 17, 2006). Race rhetoric is part of Umno politics. Malaysia Today.
  7. ^ DAP proves Sedition Act still relevant: Zam. (Nov. 28, 2006). Malaysia Today.

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