KUALA LUMPUR, Oct 16 ― Malaysian lawyers will trade the courtroom for the streets today, in an uncommon march by the legal profession to demand Putrajaya honour its two-year old pledge to repeal the Sedition Act 1948.
The rare spectacle is set to add to mounting pressure on the government to abolish the colonial-era law whose use in an ongoing crackdown has drawn criticism from both local and international groups including the United Nations.
Christopher Leong, who heads the Malaysian Bar that represents 16,000 lawyers in peninsular Malaysia, pointed out that the prime minister himself has asked moderates to speak up instead of ceding public space to extremists.
“This walk by the Malaysian Bar is part of our response to that call by the prime minister for moderates to stand up and speak out,” Leong said in an interview with local radio station BFM yesterday, adding later that the professional body believes that the national leader was right to decide to pledge the abolition of the law.
In 2012, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak vowed to repeal the Sedition Act 1948 and replace it with national harmony laws as part of his legal reforms to provide Malaysians with greater civil liberties.
But the move has since run up against resistance from conservative Malay-Muslim groups, who contend that eliminating the law would remove restrictions on alleged demands to do away with a host of constitutional provisions, primarily those concerning Bumiputera privileges.
When explaining the need for the Malaysian Bar’s “Walk for Peace and Freedom” this morning, Leong said the Sedition Act sweeps “important social issues” under the carpet instead of allowing Malaysians to freely discuss and learn to grow, saying that such matters would then “fester” in society and turn “rotten”.
Inherited from British colonialists, the Sedition Act 1948 criminalises speech that “excites disaffection” against the government, but its broadly-defined terms allow it to be wielded against virtually all forms of dissent.
The Bar’s vice-president, Steven Thiru, called the Sedition Act an “obsolete” law that represses free thought, and highlighted the fact that Putrajaya has used the decades-old law far more often than ever before since declaring its intention to repeal it.
“You cannot have a law which you have actually slated for repeal, then being used - as it is now - to the hilt,” he said in the same interview with BFM yesterday.
In just nine months this year, 12 cases have been prosecuted under the Sedition Act ― the highest figure since 2009 ― raising alarm in civil society of Putrajaya’s perceived clampdown on dissent.
Eight cases were brought to trial under the Sedition Act in 2013, while only one case each made it to court in both 2009 and 2011; there was a complete absence of sedition charges during 2010 and 2012.
Today’s march will be just the fourth in the Malaysian Bar’s 67-year history. Recent marches include the 2007 “Walk for Justice” and the 2011 “Walk for Freedom to Walk” over a judicial appointment scandal and the PAA Bill, respectively; both drew estimated crowds of between 1,000 and 2,000 people.
Despite its exceptionality and the international attention, political analysts are doubtful that the Bar’s walk will achieve more than just news headlines.
When contacted, Monash University Malaysia’s head of political science Prof James Chin told Malay Mail Online that the march today would be negative for Putrajaya as it was legal experts protesting a particular law.
“I think the government will ignore since they are planning a replacement law already. They will say the Bar Council is over-reacting and not [patient] enough,” the political scientist said in an email reply.
Centre for Policy Initiatives (CPI) director Dr Lim Teck Ghee described the march as damaging to Putrajaya’s bid to be recognised as a “liberal and democratic government”, saying that it would seek to avoid any “adverse publicity” by ensuring the lawyers are handled with “kid gloves”.
But he added that the walk was not as effective as bipartisan calls for the Sedition Act to go, nor will it gain traction as a one-off event.
Prof Dr Jayum A. Jawan of Universiti Putra Malaysia said the Malaysian Bar’s walk is unlikely to “pressure the government to do things drastically”, citing the “reality” where Putrajaya has to weigh the small legal community’s objections against the views of millions of voters.
He said that the Sedition Act was still needed as a temporary measure to ensure harmony in a volatile environment where Malaysians have yet to show maturity in public discourse, but acknowledged public dissatisfaction on how the ruling government has failed to use the law with “good judgement”.
Yesterday, both Leong and Steven stressed that the Malaysian Bar’s march was just one part of its ongoing #MansuhAktaHasutan (#Repeal the Sedition Act) campaign pushing for the Sedition Act’s repeal, saying that the legal body will continue to advocate for its abolition after the walk.
Leong also confirmed that the Malaysian Bar has given early notification of the march to the police, saying that the latter was legally-bound by the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012 (PAA) to facilitate the walk and ensure the security of participants.
International observers are expected to monitor the march from Padang Merbok to Parliament, with support pouring in from lawyers across the region and also from as far as Germany for the Malaysian Bar’s opposition to the Sedition Act.
Malay Mail Online understands that both the Sabah Law Association (SLA) and the Advocates Association of Sarawak (AAS) ― the bodies representing lawyers in the two east Malaysian states - have yet to decide on joining or supporting the march here.