There is growing concern as Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim and his Pakatan Harapan-Barisan Nasional-plus government seems to be moving towards something like lese majeste in Malaysia that will criminalise actions and speech about the royalty.
In June 2023 the Malaysian government warned it would take “appropriate action” against any insults or threats towards the nation’s royal institution.
The draconian Sedition Act 1948 – a law enacted by the British colonial government – has continued to be used. In three years, 2020-2022, 255 persons were investigated under the act, but only four were charged. In 2023 the act is still being used.
On 25 September, the 41-year-old Wan Ji’s guilty finding – for making seditious remarks against the sultan of Selangor – was confirmed by the Court of Appeal, which sentenced him to nine months’ imprisonment.
In July 2023 the present Kedah chief minister was charged under Sedition Act for two offences in two different courts – one with regard to comments concerning the Selangor sultan and the other concerning a statement about the “unity government” of Prime Minister Anwar.
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In March 2019 the police also investigated organisers or participants of a women’s march in Kuala Lumpur under the Sedition Act. This year, some participants were investigated for offences under the draconian Peaceful Assembly Act 2012 and another law.
Many in Malaysia expected the repeal of the draconian Sedition Act when Anwar’s PH won the election but this did not happen after about 11 months in power.
Just repeal it
Malaysians Against Death Penalty and Torture (Madpet) reiterates the call for the total abolition of the Sedition Act and cannot agree with the Malaysian cabinet’s position to keep it, and use it only to protect the King, sultans and the rulers of the states.
“The Cabinet has agreed in principle for the Sedition Act 1948 (Act 15) to be reviewed to ensure this law is used only to protect the institution of Rulers from any provocation,” she [Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department (Law and Institutional Reform) Datuk Seri Azalina Othman Minister] said in a statement in July this year.
On 16 October 2014, the Malaysian Bar held a “walk for peace and freedom”, participated by about 1,500 lawyers, to condemn the use of the Sedition Act and call for its immediate repeal.
In June 2020 Suhakam, the Malaysian human rights commission, called on the government to repeal the Sedition Act without further delay. Many groups and persons have called for a repeal.
The Sedition Act makes it an offence to do or say things that “have a seditious tendency” – that has a tendency “to bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against…”.
Hence, it does not matter if what was said was even the truth or a justified opinion – all that matters is whether it had a seditious tendency.
Whether the maker of the statement had the intention of doing an act that caused a seditious tendency is irrelevant. Section 3(3) of the act states: “For the purpose of proving the commission of any offence against this Act the intention of the person charged at the time… shall be deemed to be irrelevant if in fact the act had, or would, if done, have had, or the words, publication or thing had a seditious tendency.”
In PP v Mark Koding , the court held that even an innocent or noble intention will not provide a defence. “It is immaterial whether the accused’s intention or motive was honourable or evil when making the speech.”
Even if the Sedition Act is repealed, Malaysia has other laws that could be used including the Penal Code offence of criminal defamation that could be used against anyone that committed crimes against the royalty.
‘No one is above the law’
The Federal Constitution in Article 8(1) states: “All persons are equal before the law and entitled to the equal protection of the law.”
That means everyone is equal, including the King, sultan and state rulers.
Article 10(1)(a) states that every citizen has the right to freedom of speech and expression, and under the “restrictions as it deems necessary or expedient” with regard to this freedom, there is no mention about the royal institution or the rulers.
The King recently reaffirmed the principle of equality of all persons, and that the law must not give special treatment or exception to anyone. He said that the law has only one language, one principle, one punishment and one application to anyone. The King, in his wisdom, did not demand any special treatment for the royalty or the royal institution.
Not a feudal state
Malaysia is a constitutional parliamentary democracy, not a feudal state.
The King and the rulers no longer have absolute power generally. All that is done by the King or rulers is on the advice of the prime minister or chief minister. The King has no choice but to follow the advice of the party as provided in the Constitution, be it the federal or state constitution. Even for the appointment of the prime minister, the King can only appoint the person who has the confidence of the majority of the members of Parliament – not as he pleases.
As such, it is ignorant or wrong to personally blame the King or any ruler, for the people he appoints including judges, Suhakam commissioners, the attorney general and members of the cabinet….
It must also be noted that the Constitution (Amendment) Act 1993 introduced in Part XV, proceedings against the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong and the rulers.
Article 182(3) states: “The Special Court shall have exclusive jurisdiction to try all offences committed in the Federation by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong or the Ruler of a State and all civil cases by or against the Yang di-Pertuan Agong or the Ruler of a State notwithstanding where the cause of action arose.”
Article 33A(1) states: “Where the Yang di-Pertuan Agong is charged with an offence under any law in the Special Court established under Part XV he shall cease to exercise the functions of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong.”
This constitutional amendment making it clear there was no immunity for royalty or the rulers was made when Anwar was a cabinet minister in the then BN government.
Definition and involvement
A problem in Malaysia is the definition of royalty, and the preferential treatment accorded… primarily because of a prevalent ‘feudal mentality’. Would that affect tenders, contracts, logging permits and mining licences when royalty is involved in the business or application? ….
If the King appoints a prime minister who does not enjoy (or no longer enjoys) the confidence of the majority, will it be an offence under the Sedition Act to highlight this…? If the royal institution or the rulers does or says something that is unacceptable or wrong, can not concerned Malaysians highlight this?
The royalty have been involved in companies involved in logging (including illegal logging), mining, and other matters, and there have been allegations of wrongdoing highlighted.
Some media reports… “Tiger habitat threatened by Malaysian royals’ mining plans” (Mongbay, 7 July 2021); “Malaysia’s Johor royals linked to forests felled for oil palm plantations without full approval” (South China Morning Post, 24 July 2022); “Shocking expose of politicians, royalty in multi-billion medicine monopoly” (Free Malaysia Today, 13 June 2018); and “Company linked to royalty in Lynas’ waste disposal site project” (Malaysiakini, 24 February 2021).
Malaysia is still reeling from the IMDB, SRC and other scandals where the executive arm of government was implicated as perpetrators for crimes (like corruption, money laundering and abuse of power) or for its failure in the enforcement and administration of justice. Then Prime Minister Najib Razak [and other top politicians, past and present] have been implicated in wrongdoings against the law.
Hence, to maintain the Sedition Act for the protection of the royalty or even royal institutions cannot be justified. Are we to be forbidden by law [from becoming] good citizens in a democracy [who] highlight wrongs or suspected wrongs or [who may] publicly disagree with a statement or action of the royalty or royal institution?
Therefore, Madpet reiterates the call to the Malaysian government to immediately repeal the draconian Sedition Act and no longer come up with excuses for delaying the repeal.
Madpet also calls on the Malaysian government to immediately impose a moratorium on the use of the Sedition Act, so that no one will ever be again investigated, arrested, detained for investigation or charged for any offences under the Sedition Act. Malaysia in 2018 imposed a moratorium on executions and Malaysia did not hang anyone after that.
Madpet also reiterates the call for the immediate repeal of bad laws and draconian provisions in law.
Charles Hector issued this statement on behalf of Malaysians Against Death Penalty and Torture (Madpet)