Malaysia Sedition Law Snares Opposition

In 2012, with Malaysia’s national ruling coalition facing a tough reelection campaign, Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak promised a raft of human rights reforms including cutting the country’s infamous colonial-era Internal Security Act, which allows for indefinite detention without trial.

None of those reforms happened. Instead, in the past several months, Najib, faced with a revolt within his United Malays National Organization, has in effect replaced the internal security act with a sedition law that he had also promised to do away with. Under its provisions, as many as 20 opposition political figures, lawyers and at least one journalist have been charged and are confronted with varying penalties in what the Malaysian press has taken to calling “operation dragnet,” an oblique reference to Operation Lalang, in which former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad ordered the roundup of dozens of opponents in 1987 and jailed them under the Internal Security Act.

Najib’s international reputation as a reformer, which has never really been deserved, has been badly battered by right-wing forces in his party, who demanded in midyear that he come down hard on opposition figures. The party is still suffering from the debacle of the 2013 general election, which cost the ruling Barisan Nasional its first defeat at the polls, by 47.38 percent of the popular vote to 50.87 percent to the opposition. The Barisan, however, was able to maintain a healthy majority of parliamentary seats by 133 seats to 89 for the opposition because of gerrymandering and the first-past-the-polls electoral system.

Out of a belief in his cred as a moderate, Najib has won the affections of US President Barack Obama, who visited Malaysia in October 2014 and who invited him to Hawaii during the president’s Christmas vacation to play golf. But Obama’s impressions have clearly been misplaced. Najib has backed not only the sedition law but has allowed such Malay nationalist groups as Perkasa and ISMA free rein. In the UMNO general assembly late last year, he promised to toughen the act even more.

In effect, according to a prominent lawyer who asked not to be named, Najib is at the mercy of forces he either can’t or won’t control given the weakness of UMNO and the ruling coalition as they look forward to a bleak 2018 election. He also has former Premier Mahathir publicly gunning for him. Muhyiddin Yassin, the deputy prime minister, who is said to be aiming for Najib’s job, has said the loss of only a few percentage points could cost the coalition the leadership of the country for the first time since independence.

This week, Perkasa’s youth wing demanded that police investigate Malaysian artist Vincent Leong on sedition charges for allegedly insulting the country’s sultans via a series of paintings titled “Kenapa Malaysia (Why Malaysia)” that was said to depict the royalty and politicians showing their backs to viewers instead of their faces.

Both Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have come down hard on Malaysia in recent reports for the use of the sedition charge as a political light saber. Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia representative, charged that “Najib’s shameful reversal of his pledge to end sedition shows his willingness to put politics over human rights," adding that “Malaysia’s human rights are in a downward spiral because the government evidently believes that continued rule depends on suppressing speech, harassing opposition groups, and targeting prominent figures with legal action.”

In addition, the government of Canada last week urged Malaysia to “ensure that enforcement of its laws does not run contrary to its democratic principles by selectively prosecuting individuals for expressing views critical of the government or its policies." Foreign Minister John Baird said the government should not use the Sedition Act to suppress criticisms against it and added that "freedom of expression is essential to any democracy" and expected the Malaysian government to "progress on this issue."

The Canadian statement was triggered by the arrest of Lawyers for Liberty Executive Director Eric Paulsen, a human rights lawyer, over a well-justified tweet accusing the Department of Islamic Development Malaysia of spreading extremism in Friday sermons. Paulson was arrested on Jan. 11 by less than 20 policemen, spreading shock across the community. When human rights groups protested the arrest and the force used, Khalid Abu Bakar, Malaysia’s inspector-general of police, warned the public against politicizing his detention and said the police would take stern action against those protesting.

Thus the sedition act, according to a resolution by the Malaysian Bar Council on Sept. 18, “has served to deter or prevent important issues from being properly and genuinely addressed. Some of these issues are effectively ‘swept under the carpet’ and allowed to fester. The act serves to perpetuate and entrench the racial, religious and other fault lines in our nation.”

Sedition charges have been threatened against individuals for pointing out the depth of corruption in UMNO-linked companies, for questioning hard-line Islamic threats by Perkasa and other nationalist organizations against Christians, particularly Chinese, and for criticizing the judgment of the courts in their actions in a clearly trumped up sodomy case against Opposition Leader Anwar Ibrahim. Some of the arrests have been for comments that took place months or even years ago.

Use of the sedition law snowballed after the late Karpal Singh, one of the country’s most prominent lawyers and a leader of the opposition Democratic Action Party, was charged with insulting the monarchy for merely questioning a legal decision by the Sultan of Perak.

At least seven top opposition figures have been charged this year, including DAP MP Teresa Kok for making a mildly offensive Lunar New Year greeting video posted on YouTube that made fun of government leaders and which featured a portly woman that some likened to Najib’s wife, Rosmah Mansor. It also included jokes about Malaysia being a dangerous country.