Sedition Threat for Activist Mocking Malaysia’s Queen
Artist defends satire in worsening expression atmosphere
A Kuala Lumpur activist and artist has been arrested and threatened with sedition for mocking Malaysia’s queen over an Instagram post in which she boasted of receiving Covid-19 vaccinations, then she suddenly withdrew the posting when it became apparent that the shots had used an unauthorized vaccine and that the royal family had received them early and out of turn.
The artist, Fahmi Reza Mohd Zarin, was taken into custody on April 23 and transported to the Jalan Dang Wangi police headquarters in Kuala Lumpur after he had compiled two playlists of songs that referenced either the Queen, Azizah Aminah Maimunah Iskandariah, or her teasing Instagram question to followers asking if they were jealous of her and her servants receiving the shot. A flock of supporters congregated at the police station and civil rights organizations immediately demanded his release.
According to local media, Fahmi, a well-known local activist, was first scheduled to be remanded for four days, but the police, perhaps realizing the negative optics for the authorities and the royal family, said he would be released the next day after his arrest. He passed a handwritten note to followers saying expression through art be defended at all costs as dozens of supporters gathered at the police station, many carrying placards protesting the use of the Sedition Act, while others criticized the institution of the monarchy. Efforts by Asia Sentinel to reach him were unsuccessful.
The affair stems from an April 16 Asia Sentinel story referencing a trip to the United Arab Emirates capital of Abu Dhabi in January by Sultan Abdullah Sultan Ahmad, the current king, to discuss with UAE Prince Mohamed bin Nayan the vast amounts of money stolen from the failed 1Malaysia Development Bhd sovereign fund which disappeared into the Middle East.
The king and presumably his entourage, which included two cabinet ministers, were said to have been vaccinated as a favor with the Sinopharm vaccine in the UAE. The vaccine at the time hadn’t been approved in Malaysia and was therefore illegal.
Sultan Abdullah, sources told Asia Sentinel, was given an additional 2,000 doses for his family and friends to take home to Malaysia. With all of the Sultan’s family inoculated by two local physicians, the excess vaccines were used for business partners and friends. The remainder was offered to Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and other ministers – all of whom declined, as they were awaiting the Pfizer vaccine in a few weeks.
Under Malaysia’s vaccination schedule, which is running far behind time, so-called front-liners, the elderly, and others were to be vaccinated first, with the privileged at the back of the line.
The unauthorized vaccinations kicked off a hushed controversy among political and society circles in Malaysia, given the perception of respect for royalty.
But when the story became public, it generated a huge public fuss, going viral on Twitter and other social media with considerable outrage against the royalty, which to many younger people in Malaysia is an expensive and unnecessary appendage in this day and age.
After a delay and reported confusion, Malaysia’s health minister, Adham Baba, denied Asia Sentinel’s report, said it was libelous and accused Asia Sentinel of seeking to harm the country. Adham’s statement was met with ridicule in political circles in Kula Lumpur.
More than that, the episode involving the queen became an object of unwanted widespread attention. In early April, she had announced the shots on Instagram. After someone asked on her Instagram page, which has 1.2 million followers, whether the queen’s servants had been vaccinated, on April 19 – three days after the Asia Sentinel report, she retorted: “Dengki ke?” or “Are you jealous?” in Malay.
“#DengkiKe” spread all over the internet, at one point becoming the most-trafficked hashtag on Twitter. Azizah hurriedly disabled her Instagram account after some of her followers started asking whether they had indeed been vaccinated.
Fahmi, a popular figure in Kuala Lumpur first put together a 100-song playlist of song titles on Spotify in English and Malay that used either the words “queen” or “jealous” or Dengki Ke, or used the phrase within the song, then a second list on Apple Music. Two hours after the second playlist, he was collected up by police.
Among its 101 tracks, according to local media, were punk rock band Sex Pistols’ God Save the Queen, rock band Queen’s Jealousy, the late John Lennon’s Jealous Again, Herlina Effendi’s Mengapa Hatimu Dengki, and Lou Monte’s Jealous of You.
The episode over the appearance of special treatment for well-connected members of society has more serious implications for Muhyiddin, who retains a shaky hold on power because of a decision in January by the king to grant an emergency declaration over the Covid-19 situation suspending parliament just as the United Malays National Organization was threatening to pull out of his Perikatan Nasional ruling coalition, which would have collapsed the coalition and triggered a call for national elections.
The king’s decision to grant the emergency is widely regarded as having more to do with protecting Muhyiddin’s precarious position than with the coronavirus. Some 35,000 people have signed an online petition demanding an end to the state of emergency, saying it has had no effect on the spread of the virus, which has now affected 387,000 people and which has been surging, with a 32 percent increase in the past week, with nearly 13,000 cases reported.
Since the accounts of special treatment have emerged, there have been increased calls to end the emergency. Although the parliament has not been sitting, Muhyiddin’s government has enacted new laws including one that allowed the Finance Ministry to approve additional spending of federal funds without going through formal parliamentary approval.
A second created charges for supposedly printing so-called “fake news” that has pushed the country well down the list of those guaranteeing freedom of expression. The latest ranking by the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders saw Malaysia fall by 18 positions, to 119th across the world. Fahmi’s arrest, on sedition charges, is liable to damage its ranking even more.