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On academic freedom and the Sedition Act

Azmi Sharom's arrest has implications for academic freedom

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Instead of punishing the Azmi Sharoms of this world, those who disagree with them should challenge these public intellectuals with ideas of their own, says the PSSM.


We in Persatuan Sains Sosial Malaysia (PSSM) view with great concern and dismay the ongoing – and widening – use of the Sedition Act 1948 by the current administration.

The recent arrests of law academic, Dr Azmi Sharom, and journalist, Susan Loone, and the sentencing of student activist, Safwan Anang, all under the Act, increasingly creates the perception at home and abroad that the Act is being (mis)used to silence dissenting voices, to curtail legitimate debate and instil a culture of fear and submission.

The Sedition Act is a 66-year-old colonial relic, ostensibly designed by the British to silence local opposition to colonial rule. Sixty-six years on, we believe it is really time for the Act to be relegated to the history books.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak evidently is aware of this. On 11 July 2012, Najib declared that his administration would repeal the Sedition Act. He made this declaration while stating that the Act would be replaced by the National Harmony Act. The announcement came as part of Najib’s slew of legislative reforms to increase civil liberties initiated during the eve of Malaysia Day in 2011.

On 5 September 2014, he was reported as having reiterated that the Sedition Act would go. For us, the fact that Najib had reiterated his earlier declaration strongly implies that, even for the prime minister himself, the Act has outlasted its usefulness.

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And on the day that Azmi was charged in court, Najib outlined the objectives of Malaysian education, one main objective being “to create a future generation that is truly educated and not merely in possession of academic qualifications”.

For us, to create a future generation that is truly educated, universities in particular and society in general need genuine academic freedom and freedom of expression, and the necessary space and healthy environment for the critical exchange of ideas to flourish. But how can we achieve this lofty objective when a culture of fear lurks in our midst, where dissent is punished, and academic freedom is severely curtailed?

The university, after all, is the place to push the frontiers of knowledge, and academics and students are the agents for the fertilisation of ideas, often competing, often different.

We seriously note that the reputation of Malaysian universities today has eroded and continues to be under scrutiny both nationally and internationally. The ongoing arrests targeting dissenting voices can only erode their reputation further.

Hence, instead of punishing the Azmi Sharoms of this world, the thinkers and public intellectuals who challenge our prejudices and our biases, we in PSSM believe that their contributions should be acknowledged. And if there are those who do not agree with their ideas, let them then challenge these ideas with those of their own, if any.

While recognising the importance of law in maintaining stability and order for the country, it is nonetheless crucial that we uphold the rule of law, and not rule by law.

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After all, we keep being reminded that we are on track for Vision 2020, that the Najib administration is really serious about the Vision.

If that were true, if the Vision is still to remain our overall political, economic, cultural, social and, yes, moral, compass, we in PSSM believe that Malaysians, especially the government of the day, need to reiterate and remember the nine challenges of the Vision.

As regards the present situation, we really need to remember the following challenges, namely, Challenge 3: Fostering and developing a mature democratic society, and Challenge 5: Establishing a mature liberal and tolerant society.

On 31 August, we celebrated 57 years of Merdeka from colonial rule. On 16 September, all Malaysians celebrated Malaysia Day.

We in PSSM believe that all Malaysians can have a meaningful celebration of our nationhood with the repeal of the Sedition Act and the upholding of basic freedoms.–

Source: The Malaysian Insider

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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29 Sep 2014 6.07am

The man ought to have known better. In a highly charged environment, a racially and politically polarised and charged environment he could have been less generous and self indulgent with his so called rights to free speech. Professor Azmi’s offence is that as a law professor his many claims to the country and constitution being racist which it is not, provoked and fanned the flames of communalism. And before it got worse the government tugged at the rope. His comments on the Sultan’s discretion is no better. Being a law professor in a country his colleagues (Bersih and the DAP and PKR) claim has a terrible education system, he ought to have known he was being set up for a fall. If this is what Bersih and the PR meant by terrible education system the prosecution may have a case against the man. Sharom’s conduct is akin to that of a person who says he is free to light a cigarette because thats a freedom he legitimately enjoys under the constitution. Sharom was in the ammunition depot where the sign clearly read no smoking and he… Read more »

Karuna Anantharasa
Karuna Anantharasa
20 Sep 2014 10.01am

The Sedition Act is basically a weapon to shut people up. All of this is in preparation for the next election. The question is what are we doing about it. There many people and organisationsee that can work hand in hand to tackle this. Someone influential move a more dynamic movement against this involving people from all walks of life.

Teh Lian Chye
19 Sep 2014 8.10pm

To quote Pak Lah, “Cakap tak serupa bikin”. We hope the PM wakes up tomorrow and feels a sense of shame and keeps his promises… instead of still doing his flip-flops.

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