Police were to question a cabinet member under Malaysia’s Sedition Act, the home minister said Tuesday, after the government announced it was lifting a moratorium on that and other laws in order to preserve national security, order and race relations.
An aide to Waytha Moorthy, a cabinet minister in charge of a Unity division, confirmed that his boss was questioned at police headquarters, among other things, about comments he allegedly made about an upcoming rally by conservative Muslim groups who oppose a U.N. convention against racial discrimination.
Last month, Malaysia’s new prime minister backpedaled on an electoral pledge by saying his government would not ratify the convention.
“Yes, the cops will be questioning him under the Sedition Act,” Home Minister Muhyiddin Yassin told reporters late Tuesday.
The nation’s police chief, Mohamad Fuzi Harun, said Waytha was called to police headquarters.
“We have summoned him and we will record the statement today,” Fuzi said without elaborating.
The police brought Waytha in for questioning about a week after a riot broke out at a minority Hindu temple near the capital, Kuala Lumpur.
Waytha’s aide, meanwhile, spoke to Benar on condition of anonymity.
“The cops said Waytha is wanted for the speech he made on the ICERD rally that is to take place this weekend,” the aide said, referring to the U.N.’s International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.
“As far as I am concerned, Waytha did not comment [on] anything about the rally,” the source added.
According to the aide, Waytha was also to be questioned about a 10-year-old video shot at a United Nations event, in which he spoke about discrimination against Malaysia’s ethnic Indian minority, and pointed out that many born as Hindus were forced to convert to Islam to get jobs and education in the Muslim-majority nation.
Because the video recently went viral, critics of the government have called for Waytha to step down from his post.
“The police wanted to record his statement based on this two issues,” the aide said.
Waytha’s questioning came days after Mahathir’s cabinet last week reversed course on its moratorium against the Sedition Act of 1948, Prevention of Crime Act (POCA), Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), and Security Offenses (Special Measures) Act of 2012 (SOSMA). The reversal followed the riot that occurred at the Sri Maha Mariamman Temple in Subang Jaya.
“The decision has been made in consideration of these three areas of concern,” Communications and Multimedia Minister Gobind Singh Deo said on Monday, citing national security, public order and race relations.
Home Minister Muhyiddin, who said he and Gobind had suggested that the moratorium be lifted, spoke out in favor of the cabinet’s decision.
“This gives full authority for police to act to ensure public safety is always maintained,” he said on Sunday. “The police were cautious before and some people took advantage of that because they thought the police were unable to act.”
In July, Mahathir announced that his cabinet championed a return to the rule of law and vowed to rescind legislation including SOSMA, which allows for detention without trial.
Malaysia’s main opposition party, former Prime Minister Najib Razak’s United Malays National Organization, warned that such action could threaten national security.
Despite lifting the moratorium, the cabinet is in the process of reviewing the laws, according to Muhyiddin.
Fuzi, the police chief, told reporters that officers had arrested more than 80 suspects in connection with the riot at the Hindu temple.
Violence erupted after 50 masked men stormed into the temple and attacked devotees. Authorities described the incident as an escalation of a dispute over the relocation of the house of worship and not race-related.
“As of 8 a.m. today, a total of 83 men have been detained to assist investigations into the trouble at the temple,” Fuzi told reporters at the police training college early Tuesday. “We are still investigating and those who broke the law will be detained.”
Meanwhile on Monday, the Kuala Lumpur city council granted a permit for a rally to be staged on Dec. 8 by conservative groups that oppose the U.N. convention.
Malaysia, Myanmar and Brunei are the three Southeast Asian nations that have not signed onto the United Nations treaty.
On Nov. 23, Mahathir announced that his government would not ratify the treaty despite a campaign pledge to the contrary and a speech that he gave to the United Nations General Assembly in New York in September.
When he spoke at the U.N., the prime minister said, “I pointed out that we are a multiracial and multireligious country. We will have problems with that. So now the problem that we predicted have happened, and we have to react to that.”
The Ummah Defenders Movement and other Malaysia-based NGOs argue that certain provisions of the U.N. convention go against Malaysian constitutional provisions that guarantee certain privileges and incentives for ethnic Malays and other indigenous races, including allowing quotas in public institutions.