Some of us may recall the 1980s popular British sitcom, Yes, Prime Minister, which featured Paul Eddington as Jim Hacker, a fictional aloof prime minister of the United Kingdom who was always on the receiving end of misinformation and deception by the equally fictional permanent secretary, Sir Humphrey Appleby, played by Nigel Hawthorne.
The political sitcom, which many say bears strong resemblance to real life, was based on a running gag where the idealist Hacker would propose reform in the name of bettering the nation, only to be thwarted by Sir Humphrey, who worked hard behind the scenes with other members of the British civil service, to ensure the status quo remained.
Likewise in Malaysia, the public face a similar situation to this running gag since 2012, when our current Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Najib Razak, then an idealist very much like Hacker, assumed that our nation, as a result of the 2008 general election, had matured politically and was ready for more openness and as a result, promised, among others that a slew of preventive laws such as the Internal Security Act 1960, the Emergency (Public Order and Prevention of Crime) Ordinance 1969 and of course, the Sedition Act 1948 would be repealed, paving the way for political liberalisation.
This was to form part of what he termed the Political Transformation Programme and was meant to go hand in hand with his Economic Transformation Programme.
To the ordinary Malaysian, such thinking was naive at best. We all know that the threat of terrorism remains as real as ever, crime is as high as it ever was and, more importantly, in the case of the Sedition Act 1948, certain segments of Malaysian society just cannot come to terms with the provisions of our social contract agreed upon by our forefathers prior to independence that are now reflected in our Federal Constitution.
These terms, among others, include that the position of Islam as the religion of Malaysia, the rights of the Malays and other indigenous communities as well as the legitimate interests of other communities, bahasa Melayu as the national language and the position of the Malay rulers.
We all know how these have been questioned more and more frequently as of late, in spite of denials and claims to the contrary, some made by well-meaning but ill-informed and misguided Malaysians writing in online news portals now and before.
The use of languages other than Malay on signboards in Penang and questioning the will to implement hudud law in Kelantan are but a few instances of not just mere question, but also violation, of these provisions.
Fortunately, our prime minister would seem to have awoken from his aloofness and has decided to retain the Sedition Act 1948 to contain these and other ongoing threats to our Federal Constitution and for that, Mr Prime Minister, we Malaysians are grateful.
But the Malaysian Bar under the leadership of Christopher Leong, instead of thanking our prime minister like any decent organisation would do, would rather not see things this way. No way, Jose.
Like Sir Humphrey and his merry band of mischievous civil service cohorts, he and other members of the current Bar Council would have us believe that all these were and are just harmless “questions, concerns or criticism”.
According to Leong’s press release on November 28, 2014, it should be those who naturally oppose the questioning of these basic elements of the Federal Constitution that should be prosecuted and brought to account by the law while those who question these basic elements are just “discussing and debating issues of public and national interests or constitutional matters.”
Going by that logic, it is “in the public and national interests” to assert, in the face of offence taken by many Malay Muslims, that Christians have the right to the term “Allah” in spite of the plain fact, confirmed by a Court of Appeal judgment, that the word is not integral to the Christian faith; and that it is a mere “constitutional matter” in defiance of the position taken by Malays and other Malaysians who respect our constitutional monarchy, to dispute a ruler’s absolute discretion to decide who should lead a state in which he rules.
If that isn’t enough, the Bar Council has the nerve to claim that the Sedition Act 1948, which has protected our nation from racial and religious strife all these years since independence particularly since it was strengthened after the unfortunate racial riots of 1969, is not the answer to maintain our much needed racial and religious harmony.
According to the Bar Council, the Sedition Act should be repealed and replaced by the National Unity Consultative Council’s (NUCC) proposed laws namely the National Harmony Bill and the Racial and Religious Hate Crime Bill.
These proposed NUCC laws were drafted with the purported assistance of the Malaysian Bar and according to Leong are solutions to achieve peaceful race relations in our great nation.
It was reported that Leong also advocated new national, harmony legislation that would serve to promote and achieve genuine peace and harmony.
Alas, the proposed bills as drafted by the NUCC at present fails this very ideal and as they say, the proof is in the pudding.
One of the proposed NUCC laws, the Racial and Religious Hate Crime Bill would legalise seditious statements so long as there is no physical threat.
For example, Clause 4 thereof states:
“Whoever engages in conduct that is intended to threaten, incite, or incite others to threaten, physical harm towards another person or… property… on the basis of race is guilty of an offence”.
There exists a similar position under Clause 5 for religious belief. What this means is that under the Racial and Religious Hate Crime Bill, one is free to make bigoted and racist statements howsoever offensive they may be and they will be perfectly legitimate as long as there is no threat of violence. One could insult and demean Islam or any other religion, use and abuse sacred religious terms such as Allah and Prophet Muhammad in the case of Muslims, Shiva and Muruga in the case of Hindus, Yeshua and Jesus in the case of Christians and make other hurtful as well as insensitive statements against any race or ethnicity in our nation and these would be perfectly legitimate as long as there is no threat of physical harm.
Strange as it may sound, this is the way forward proposed by the Bar Council.
Instead of advocating the reduction of potentially harmful statements and acts that could be detrimental to national unity, the Malaysian Bar would seem to desire the proliferation of more bigoted and racist statements in the name of “meaningful, frank and robust discourse”.
The Bar Council actually believes these so-called legitimate “questions, criticism and expressions of thought” will lead to genuine peace and harmony.
Would any reasonable Malaysian think this? Surely not.
As it is, the strongest supporters for the abolition of Sedition Act 1948, Lim Guan Eng of DAP and the Chief Minister of Penang, many other non-Malays and Christians as represented by the Christian Federation of Malaysia (CFM) have made a huge hue and cry of and lodged various police reports over purported religious and racial statements allegedly made by Isma and Datuk Ibrahim Ali labelling non-Malays “pendatang” or migrants and alleged threats to burn the Bible.
These statements by Isma and Ibrahim would not even be an offence under the draft law by the NUCC but these quarters are hugely upset and agitated with these statements and call for the enforcement of Sedition Act against organisations and individuals in the like mentioned above.
The non-applicability of the proposed laws in such instances is confirmed by non-other than former president of the Malaysian Bar and NUCC member Lim Chee Wee himself.
The Malaysian Bar appears to be disconnected from reality in thinking that a repeal of the Sedition Act 1948 leading to legalisation and subsequent proliferation of bigoted and racist statements by irresponsible Malaysians would achieve genuine peace and harmony.
Paraphrasing the words of Leong, anyone who believes that the proposed NUCC laws are the key to peace and harmony is delusional. It is folly to think that the proposed NUCC laws is our answer to maintaining and promoting peace and harmony. There is nothing in the proposed NUCC laws that supports any such notion. Any right-minded Malaysian paraphrasing Leong would see the proposed NUCC laws would only serve to perpetuate disharmony, and that by accepting the proposition of the said laws, the government is caving into pressure by irresponsible quarters.
According to the Bar Council, there are quarters in Malaysia which have created an environment of disharmony – misinterpreting and abusing the Federal Constitution, distorting our history, exploiting insecurities and challenging our peaceful and traditional values. These irresponsible quarters do not want those who scare monger with racists and religious statements to be brought to account by the law. And by proposing the NUCC drafted legislation, the Bar Council is doing precisely that. Such a move puts the Bar Council in the position of being irresponsible, if not downright deceitful much like Sir Humphrey in the Yes, Minister series.
The way forward must not and cannot be an increase and legalisation of bigoted and racist statements with the purpose of dividing Malaysians further. Citizens of this great nation of us much desire that all divisive, racist and bigoted statement cease to be made by all who would make them. By advocating their legality, the Bar Council behaving in a highly irresponsible and deceitful manner and contributes to the mass confusion we now face with in Malaysia.
It is our considered opinion that the Malaysian Bar is in dire need of serious reform and Najib is urged to earnestly pursue such reform rather than taking any more stock by what the Bar Council says and does and for that, Mr Prime Minister, we, the vast majority of members of the Malaysian Bar, much like Malaysians in general in the case of retaining the Sedition Act 1948, will thank you very much for it.
* Lukman Sheriff Alias and Faidhur Rahman Abdul Hadi are lawyers practising in Hartamas Heights, Kuala Lumpur. Faidhur is also an activist member of Concerned Lawyers for Justice.
**First published in The Malaysian Insider, 29th November 2014.