PUTRAJAYA - Malaysia must properly define what statements are considered insulting to the royal institution, Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad said on Thursday (Jan 10), as his government announced it will enact legislation to protect the monarchy from "slander and attacks" in the wake of the unprecedented resignation of the country's constitutional monarch.
“At the moment, our enforcement officers do not understand what is considered insult, so we need to spell out what sort of actions or words can be construed as insults," Tun Dr Mahathir told reporters after chairing a meeting of the Special Cabinet Committee on Anti-Corruption.
“I have said before that Malaysia now practises freedom of speech. With this freedom of speech, if you say something factual, you cannot be prosecuted."
“On the other hand, if we shut the mouths of everyone until people cannot even speak up against acts of crime, then there will be injustice in the country."
Dr Mahathir was commenting on the arrest of three people for allegedly insulting Kelantan's Sultan Muhammad V after he stepped down as king or Yang di-Pertuan Agong on Sunday, in comments posted on Facebook and Twitter.
The three, two men aged 46 and 27 and a woman aged 26, were detained under the Sedition Act. Critics say the arrests contradict the ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition's promise to abolish the Act.
Earlier on Thursday, Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Liew Vui Keong said the government will seek to enact new laws and amend existing ones to protect the country's Malay rulers from slander, the official Bernama news agency reported.
"Ours is a constitutional monarchy. So, the government must always ensure that our rulers are protected from unfounded slander and attacks by irresponsible people," Datuk Liew was quoted as telling reporters after a New Year function at the Prime Minister's Department.
Comments that are currently deemed by law to be seditious include those that "create discontent or disaffection among the subjects of the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong or of the ruler of any state". Offenders can be fined up to RM5,000 (S$1,650) or jailed for up to three years, or both.
Malaysia is grappling with the abrupt resignation of Sultan Muhammad V as the country's 15th Yang Di-Pertuan Agong, purportedly following his recent marriage to a Russian model.
The Sultan's unprecedented departure midway through his five-year term sparked a scramble to avert a constitutional crisis. The new king is now due to be selected by the Conference of Rulers on Jan 24, and be sworn in on Jan 31.
Mr Liew, the minister, said laws must provide for the punishment of "irresponsible people" who do not respect the institution of the monarchy.
Current penalties for certain offences against the monarchy were too lenient, he was cited by Bernama as saying.
"The objective is to ensure that our constitutional monarchy will always be protected from all kinds of attack," Mr Liew said.
The government will study the constitutional monarchies in Commonwealth countries for the new laws, he added.