Malaysian human rights groups reacted furiously on Tuesday after Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad appeared to backtrack on an electoral promise to repeal the nation’s colonial-era Sedition Act, which the previous government had used notoriously to silence its critics.
NGOs Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram) and Anti-Sedition Act Movement (GHAH) reiterated their calls for Malaysia’s new government to abolish the law. They also urged Mahathir’s administration to impose a moratorium on it during the legislative process for doing away with the act.
A day earlier, the prime minister said it would take time for parliament to repeal the law, but added that his government had no timeline for this.
“Since the transition of power on May 9, Suaram and other civil societies have consistently called for a moratorium on draconian laws that continue to repress everyday Malaysians,” Suaram executive director Sevan Doraisamy told BenarNews.
Without a moratorium and no clear directives adopted by the government, it was not surprising that law enforcement agencies, especially police, were still using the act, he said.
“The position by the Pakatan Harapan administration, is now a mockery to the aspiration for change held by all Malaysians,” Sevan said, referring to the country’s new ruling coalition.
Critics have said that the Sedition Act of 1948 was widely used by Prime Minister Najib Razak to repress criticism of his government before his Barisan Nasional coalition suffered a shock defeat to Pakatan Harapan (PH) in the May 2018 general election.
In its campaign manifesto leading up to the polls, Mahathir’s Pakatan alliance pledged to abolish the Sedition Act and other national security laws, including the Security Offenses (Special Measures) Act (SOSMA) and the National Security Council Act.
But on Monday, Mahathir said his government would keep the 70-year-old law in force for the time being.
“The Sedition Act is still there. To repeal it may take some time,” Mahathir said. “It will have to go to parliament and in the meantime we will continue to apply the law.”
Hours later, Communications and Multimedia Minister Gobind Singh Deo said the act would be repealed during the next parliament sitting, which is scheduled to run from Oct. 15 to Dec. 11, according to the government calendar.
Gobind, a prominent lawyer and advocate for the act’s abolishment, said he would not wait for parliament to act. Instead, he said, he planned to call for a moratorium during a cabinet meeting on Wednesday.
“PH on track to repeal Sedition Act. AG working on it. Just checked again this afternoon,” he tweeted on Monday, referring to the attorney general.
Meanwhile, GHAH spokesman Amir Abdul Hadi also called for the government to act.
“We supported Gobind’s view and we, from the start, have been urging the government to put a moratorium on the law until it can be brought to parliament,” he told BenarNews. “We also understand the prime minister’s remark saying there is no perfect timeline. But we ask that this matter will be debated in the next session.
“Whether it will be repealed or not is another thing, but to table the debate shows that the government is committed to repealing the law.”
Freedom ‘must be fought for’
Lokman Noor Adam, who organized gatherings of Najib’s supporters to rally outside the courthouse when the former leader was brought in to be charged with money laundering and other counts stemming from the 1MDB financial scandal, slammed the new government for using the law against his brother.
Azman Adam was arrested on Oct. 2 for allegedly insulting Mahathir on Facebook and was remanded for four days and was released on bail, according to police. Mahathir has said that people should not be arrested for criticizing him.
Meanwhile, Fadiah Nadwa Fikri, who is being investigated for what she wrote about the Malaysian monarchy, said that PH’s electoral platform promise was mere rhetoric.
She said the government could easily abolish the act, but lacked the political will to do so.
“In the interim, the government could impose a moratorium if they wanted to. The utter disregard for human rights and democratic principles is a disgrace,” she told BenarNews. “It also serves as a reminder to the people that freedom is never given, it must be fought for.”
Fadiah was questioned in July after several police reports were made against her under both the Sedition and Communications and Multimedia Acts.
In a blog post on Malaysia Muda, Fadiah wrote “Don’t Kiss the Hand that Beats You” where she questioned the Malaysian royal institution describing it as incompatible with democracy.