Adam Adli, a Malaysian political activist, was sentenced to a year in jail two days ago. His offence was questioning the results of the 2013 general elections and asking Malaysians to remove Barisan Nasional (BN), the ruling coalition, from federal power.
Some history and background for those unfamiliar with Malaysian politics and law. 85% of the country’s 13.3 million registered voters turned out at the elections last year. Barisan Nasional won only 47% of the popular vote, its worst ever electoral performance, yet managed to secure 60% of the 222 parliamentary seats, a result achieved through gerrymandered constituencies, and, worse, through alleged vote buying and rigging. What we are witnessing is a party, which has ruled the country since independence in 1957, using every trick in the book, including the Sedition Act of 1948, to hold on to power.
Adam’s first offence then was to state the obvious by bringing into question to results of the 2013 general elections, something numerous commentators, both Malaysian and foreign, have talked about time and again. His second was to ask Malaysians to register their protest by taking to the streets, a time-honoured way of showing your dissent in any political system, democratic or not. Adam has stressed that he had not urged the public to riot nor had he asked them to topple the government using violence. ‘I just wanted the public to physically show BN we are not afraid of them, and to demand that the government step down so a re-election can be called,’ he said.
The Sedition Act of 1948 was enacted by the British colonial government of Malaya to combat the communist insurgency. After the May 13 racial riots in 1969, it was amended to criminalise any questioning of the government, administration of justice, racial issues, the special position of Malays and the natives of Sabah and Sarawak, language, citizenship, and the ruler’s sovereignty. Just about anything interesting you may want to talk about and anything that challenges the status quo. The law is so broad and vague that it allows almost any comment or expression of discontent, including this post, to be considered seditious, incurring a punishment of up to three years in jail, a RM5,000 fine, or both. Less a reader of this post thinks this is too laughable a law to be put into practice, read the Human Rights Watch article documenting the many cases it has been used this year alone to stifle dissent, the media and the opposition.
Many have been active in calling for the act to be repealed. The Malaysian Bar adopted a special resolution yesterday calling the act ‘an instrument of oppression’, which ‘has been used to stifle speech and expression, to shut out contrary views and voices, to quell dissent and opposition, to constrict and deny democratic space, and to oppress and suppress Malaysians’. They are not alone; many have been active in calling for the act to be repealed, just like its sister Internal Security Act, which was abolished two years ago in time for the elections. The Malaysian prime minister himself promised to look into replacing the act by the rather dubiously named National Harmony Act, but nothing has been done since.
Adam Adli has been rather sanguine about his imprisonment, calling it ‘troublesome’ and saying that he was not frightened about ending up behind bars. He said rather coolly that a year in prison would be good for his legal studies and the fight against the sedition act, but he seemed concerned that his long locks would be cut.
The rest of us should express more concern, now that Adam has done his part. The act has no place in an active democracy. Questioning our rulers and government, questioning justice, questioning anything we want to question, including the special rights of a slice of the population under the constitution, has to be a fundamental right of every citizen in a democracy. We do not need to protected from ourselves and our opinions, as our government says we do when they invoke the precarious state of racial harmony in Malaysia and its immature democracy. After 57 years of independence we surely are mature enough to handle freedom of speech to become better, fairer and stronger.
Adam Adli’s father, Abd Halim, said he was proud that his son went to prison fighting for the rights of Malaysians. We should be too. Proud of him, proud of the others who have been charged and imprisoned under this pernicious act, proud of the many Malaysians who have fought, and will continue to fight, for the act to be repealed. The end of the Sedition Act 1948 may be just one step towards a more democratic country, but it’s a giant leap for a nation that has been afraid of bringing to light the many injustices that underpin its existence, many of them enshrined in the constitution and law.