Malaysian opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim was charged with sedition on 24 September for statements he made at a political rally three years earlier. Shortly before, on 19 September, a Malaysian court sentenced a student activist to a year in jail for comments he made after the 2013 general election. These cases are the latest in a surge of sedition charges that is terrorising opposition politicians, social activists, journalists and academics in Malaysia.
The spate of cases represents an attack on free speech and indicates an ongoing trend of political repression since the ruling National Front barely clung to power in the 2013 election. It could also prove to be a setback to the recent improvement in relations between the United States and Malaysia. As cases continue to stack up and domestic opposition starts to build, policymakers in Washington, and other capitals, will be watching to see if the situation warrants high-level attention and potentially public criticism.
A concerted effort appears to be underway within the Malaysian police and judiciary to enforce the country’s colonial-era sedition law. So far in 2014, 14 people have been charged, including 12 since August. Time is no barrier given that some charges have been retrospectively filed for alleged offenses made years ago. Most worrying is the fact that the law has mainly been used against the government’s opponents, including seven opposition politicians (including Anwar’s lawyer), an academic, a social activist and a journalist with , which is often critical of the government.
The Sedition Act of 1948 is a relic of British authorities’ efforts to quell opposition to colonial rule and root out communism. As recent cases demonstrate, its broad definition sets a low bar for its potential use. An offender is someone who ‘does or attempts to do … any act which would, if done, have a seditious tendency’, or ‘utters any seditious words’. A seditious tendency is one meant to ‘excite disaffection against any Ruler or against any government’ or ‘promote feelings of ill will and hostility between different races or classes’.
The timing, number of cases and selective application of the law raises serious concerns as it indicates high-level political coordination and interference. It also runs counter to Prime Minister Najib Razak’s 2012 commitment to repeal the Sedition Act as well as his broader reform agenda. The arrests are more suited to Malaysia’s authoritarian past under former prime minister Mahathir Mohamad. Najib recently said he still intends to repeal the law, but refused to take up the legislative reforms recommended by the National Unity Consultative Council, a body set up to conduct public consultations on reforming the Sedition Act.
Najib seems content to fence-sit for the time being. On 13 September, he said that discussions should continue with those, especially in the majority Malay community, who are concerned about the repeal effort. Najib and his party, the United Malaysia National Organisation (UMNO), are especially sensitive to this sentiment because of its increasing reliance on the Malay vote after Chinese voters almost completely abandoned the ruling coalition in the 2013 election. Najib says that the freedom of all Malaysians ‘should also be in balance with laws that protected long-held principles’. Those principles presumably include the legally privileged status of ethnic Malays. Insecurity about that status appears to be driving the conservative wing of UMNO to stymie efforts to repeal or reform the Sedition Act. If Najib continues to acquiesce to their demands and tactics, it will seriously undermine his reformist credentials.
Malaysia watchers in the United States and elsewhere have reason to be concerned. The use of sedition charges against political opponents risks reversing Malaysia’s progress towards becoming a modern and mature democracy. If the arrests continue it will heighten criticism by human rights groups and policymakers abroad. In the United States, where anxieties are already growing ahead of the final appeal against Anwar’s sodomy conviction in late October, such severe backsliding could put a damper on what should be a burgeoning relationship.