Malaysia's continued use of sedition law draws flak after preacher jailed

Pakatan Harapan had in its election manifesto promised to do away with the colonial-era law, and this planned repeal has been repeatedly affirmed, including by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.
Pakatan Harapan had in its election manifesto promised to do away with the colonial-era law, and this planned repeal has been repeatedly affirmed, including by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad.PHOTO: AFP

KUALA LUMPUR - Members of the ruling Pakatan Harapan (PH) have joined civil activists in chastising the Malaysian government after Muslim preacher Wan Ji Wan Hussin became the first to be jailed by the Mahathir Mohamad administration under the Sedition Act, despite repeated promises to repeal the controversial law.

Wan Ji's appeal against a nine-month sentence imposed in 2014 for "insulting the Sultan of Selangor" was dismissed by the High Court on Tuesday (July 9). In addition, the court extended the jail sentence to one year.

"We urge the public prosecutor to explain why they cross-appealed for a stiffer sentence on Wan Ji, as this clearly goes against the PH's policy stand on this cruel law," youth chiefs of all four PH parties said in a joint statement. "We also urge the federal government to immediately abolish the Sedition Act so that such violations of human rights do not recur."

Judge Abdul Halim Aman also refused to stay execution of the sentence while Wan Ji files a further appeal at the Court of Appeal, resulting in Wan Ji being immediately imprisoned, with several dozen human rights activists holding a candlelight vigil for him on Tuesday night. His application for a stay will only be heard on Friday (July 12).

Wan Ji is a member of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR), the largest party in PH. He was a religious adviser to Finance Minister Lim Guan Eng when the latter was the Penang chief minister.

Critics have claimed the Sedition Act is abused to stifle political dissent. PH had in its election manifesto last year promised to do away with the colonial-era law, and this planned repeal has been repeatedly affirmed, including by Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad on Thursday.

"We are in the midst of structuring the new law and it will be concluded as soon as possible," he told reporters in Parliament.

But the continued arrests and prosecutions indicate otherwise.

While a series of charges against activists and politicians were dropped after new Attorney-General Tommy Thomas took office in June 2018, a moratorium on further investigations put in place by the Cabinet in October didn't even last two months before the government reversed the decision.

 
 
 

As a result, politicians like PKR vice-president Tian Chua had to continue defending sedition charges against him for criticising the government in an election rally in 2013. He was acquitted after winning his appeal in November, avoiding the heftier sentence prosecutors sought on cross-appeal, like in the Wan Ji case.

By January, police had arrested three people for allegedly insulting Sultan Muhammad V of Kelantan after he became Malaysia's first King to abdicate.

Meanwhile Umno leader Lokman Adam was arrested for accusing the government of a cover-up in the racially sensitive death of a Malay fireman following ethnic clashes at a Hindu temple on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur last November.

With PH struggling to win crucial Malay support in the face of the effective cooperation between opposition parties Umno and Parti Islam SeMalaysia, observers say the Sedition Act is being used by PH to allay growing anxiety among the majority ethnic community.

This would include their concerns that the royal institution - seen as guardians of Malay rights and Islam - and Malay privileges should be protected from criticism. Wielding the sedition law to allay these concerns, observers say, could bolster Malay support for PH.

"The only difference between Wan Ji and others who were acquitted is that they were critical of BN and the judiciary while his case involves the royalty," a top PH leader told The Straits Times, referring to former ruling coalition Barisan Nasional.

In September, Mr Thomas, the Attorney-General, said repealing the law would require the approval of Malaysia's royal rulers.

"(The repeal) ... requires constitutional amendment because one of the sections in the Act prohibits criticisms against the Rulers - what is regarded as the privileges of the Conference of Rulers. They have to approve."

The Attorney-General's Chambers did not respond to questions from The Straits Times about the continued use of the Sedition Act.

De facto law minister Liew Vui Keong said in May: "We want to ensure that not necessarily all statements made can be seditious because we want to ensure certain statements can enjoy some form of freedom... but not that we want to allow everybody to simply make statements that defame our rulers and leaders especially."