Suppressing dissenters stifles democracy

Dissent is one of the central elements of democracy. But when such dissenting voices start to make the leaders feel threatened, they normally opt for an offensive approach – that is, by labelling a person a traitor. But, we have to recognise that constructive criticism against one’s government is not sedition, rather, according to the American founding father, Thomas Jefferson, dissent is the highest form of patriotism. The ruling Barisan Nasional (BN) faces continuous calls for political and legislative reforms, particularly since the 2008 general election, where they lost the two-thirds majority in Parliament. These pressures come from not only the opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat (PR), but also from the civil society that has been expanding ever since. Since then, more warnings have become visible of the leadership’s anxiety about these appeals for greater freedom and democracy in the country.

Two years ago in July 2012, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Abdul Razak announced the government’s decision to repeal the archaic Sedition Act 1948 and to replace it with a law that will be known as the National Harmony Act. The announcement came as part of the prime minister’s move to regain the momentum for reforms, which were initiated in 2011 in view of the approaching general election. I quote, “The Sedition Act represents a bygone era in our country and with today’s announcement we mark another step forward in Malaysia’s development… Our country’s strength lies in its diversity. The new Act underlines my commitment to nurturing the spirit of harmony and mutual respect that has been the foundation of our stability and success…” A year later in July 2013, speaking on British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) World News in London, the prime minister reiterated that he is committed to his promise that the Sedition Act would be repealed. Unfortunately until today, the public is still waiting for the prime minister to walk his talk. Contrary to the prime minister’s promise, the act has been increasingly used to silent dissent voices, especially on activists and opposition leaders.

Based on the figures provided by the human rights group the Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram) in their own monitoring of cases that they are aware of, there were 15 reported in 2013, and as of August 2014, eight cases have been reported. The authorities’ decision to charge Teresa Kok, Khalid Samad, R.S.N. Rayer, N. Surendran and a few other opposition members with the act recently has renewed questions over the government’s sincerity to do away with the controversial law. Such prosecution is a major blow to the public confidence and it further strengthens the impression that this legislation is used selectively. They have undermined the credibility of the BN government. This too does not bode well for good governance. By not keeping to his repeated promise, it showcases that the prime minister is not only insincere in his calls on the so-called “legislative reform”, but also his fear to dissenting voices that are against his administration. After all, the Sedition Act, as with its predecessor the sedition ordinance, is a British colonial legacy. The act has had outlived its purpose. By imposing the act, despite the repeated promise to repeal the act, is embarrassing. Theodore Roosevelt, the 26th president of the US in his 1918 statement said, “Those who say that it is unpatriotic to criticise an American president in time of war are guilty of moral treason to the American people.”

In short, the ruling government should manage dissenters in a professional manner. Managing dissent is about recognizing the differences. Hence, a constructive engagement with the opposition coalition should be forged to overcome whatever issues raised. Ultimately, legislation is not the only channel to ensure political stability and harmony among the multi-ethnic society in this country. What we need really is genuine political will from the leaders. In celebrating our 57th birthday, it is sad that we have come to a point that dissent voices means extreme views that potentially stirring up peace and harmony. For these reasons, the sedition act has no place to stay in our nation. It is only when the citizens can voice their criticisms confidently and without fear, that we can build a truly free nation and not a fear nation.

This article appeared in The Malaysian Insider on 1 September 2014.

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