Sedition Act

Repeal or amend Sedition Act 1948 and Sedition Amendment Act 2015

Sedition is the act of stirring up discontent or opposition to the state or government through words or publications. The crime of sedition originated in England in the early 17th century, at a time when the divine right of rulers was not only accepted but believed to be necessary and when criticism of rulers was considered sinful as well as unlawful.

It was first established that for the crime of sedition, the truth of the words spoken or published was no defence and intention was irrelevant as was whether there was any actual harm done. In the UK case law evolved until it was established that the words written or spoken, must intend to provoke violence aimed at disturbing or overthrowing the government by force in order to be liable to conviction. British sedition laws were largely unused for the most of the 20th century and abolished in 2009.

“The ability of individuals to criticise the state is crucial to maintaining freedom. We need a vigorous culture of free speech in order to keep government up to the mark.” Lord Lester of Herne Hill (HL Deb, 9 July 2009, cols 843).

The British exported their crime of sedition to their colonies but here sedition law did not evolve to include the principle that intent to provoke violence to overthrow the government by force must be proven before a guilty verdict can be handed down. In the colonies, sedition law was used to for its original purpose of suppressing criticism against the government.

When the colonies, such as Canada, Australia, India gained independence, they have moved to incorporate the principle of intent into their sedition laws. Some Law Reform Commissions in these countries have described offence of sedition as “an outdated and unprincipled law”.

The glaring exception is Malaysia which still retains the original notion that neither the truth of the words spoken nor intent are defences against the charge of sedition. Indeed, Malaysia has moved to strengthen sedition law with the Sedition Amendment Act 2015 with increased penalties and new provisions for electronic media. Since liable to be abused by the party in power in order to cling to power, Malaysian civic society quite rightly demands the repeal of the Sedition Act 1948 and the 2015 amendment Act

In the Malaysian context however, there is a unique factor which must be taken into account, that is Malaysian civic society, although multi-racial, is largely urban, and their world view is different from that of the rural population which is largely Malay.

In Najib’s liberal phase when it was proposed to repeal the Sedition Act, there was strong opposition from UMNO members. Their anxiety, as shown by an online petition in change.org appeared to be centred on sub section 3 (1) (f). This section is unique to the Malaysian Act. This made it seditious even in speeches by MPs in Parliament to question Malay as the National Language, the special rights of Bumiputeras and the prerogatives of the Malay rulers as enshrined in Articles 152, 153 and 181 of the Federal constitution. This was inserted in 1970 following bloody racial riots claimed to be caused by inflammatory speeches on these topics by election candidates.

Since politics is the art of the possible and since the views of the Malay community have as much right to be considered as civic society, a solution acceptable to both sides may be not to repeal but to amend the Sedition Act, keeping 3 (1) (f) but introducing the principle that intent must be proven before a guilty verdict can be handed down. If such a principle is introduced, experience in other countries show that the number of sedition cases drop to almost zero.

References

Seditious Tendency? by Jeyaseelan Anthony

How the British abolished their sedition laws — United Kingdom & Eire Malaysian Law Students’ Union (KPUM)

Online Petition: Kekalkan Akta Hasutan 1948


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