Test of sedition law is in its application

Amid the hardline bluster and theatre of the United Malays National Organisation's general assembly, there were not enough voices within or outside to reflect realpolitik concerns over Malaysian national interests. Fractious politics and the troubled economics of change in Malaysia should be prompting minds to focus on "we're all in this together" approaches. Instead, what emerged was the inevitable angst over Umno's decision to strengthen the Sedition Act instead of scrapping it, as Prime Minister Najib Razak had pledged earlier.

Though pitched as a safety measure to forestall airing of prickly issues relating to race, religion or Malay royalty, tougher sedition laws were seen as oppressive and retrogressive by opposition parties, civil rights groups and the Malaysian Bar Council. An international perspective of the outcome, aired by The Economist magazine, was that "to many Malaysians... (the) campaigning slogan of '1Malaysia', emphasising racial harmony, now rings hollow".

But the reality on the ground is likely to be more nuanced. Given the nature of race-based politics in Malaysia and the rallying impulses of Umno meetings, Malaysians would expect narrow party interests to dominate. They would also concede that Datuk Seri Najib's reversal was a tactical one, forced upon him by the confluence of events. What would matter ultimately is the control he exercises over prosecutions pursued under the revised Act, in order to "be fair to everyone", as he promised.

Therein lies the nub of a matter that is troubling many nations. How should one balance the need to curb particularly harmful hate speech against the preservation of free speech in democratic settings? With the larger interest in mind, there is cause to act against opinions that incite hatred and violence, all the more when these are based on distorted or untrue information. Rather than a balance metaphor that weighs one against another, it would be better to see it as a pyramid of obligations, with national interests ranking above group interests.

An obligation to act fairly for the benefit of all would naturally weigh more heavily upon dominant political institutions, to ensure that the ship is kept afloat in choppy waters. Beyond winning the Malay vote, which is Umno's raison d'etre, it is incumbent on a party with a long and proud political tradition to help gain the support of other communities as well.

Indeed, the multiracial polity of Malaysian society would be a meaningless abstraction if the application of the revised Sedition Act deepens communal divisions, especially if it's seen to be primarily about protecting Malay power and privileges and suppressing dissenting views.