The recent arrest of Kean Wong, the editor of the book Rebirth: Reformasi, Resistance, and Hope in New Malaysia, has sent a chilling message to the people of Malaysia about freedom of expression under the current government, led by Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim.
The government was elected based on promises to get rid of the authoritarianism of past administrations. Several major parties now in government had pledged to deepen democracy in the country.
Wong was arrested because of the controversial cover design of his book, a collection of essays regarding the change of government in 2018. The book was banned in 2020.
Wong is being investigated under three laws: the Sedition Act 1948, the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 and the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998. These acts have been used to silence critics for decades.
The reason for his arrest? The authorities find its book cover objectionable as it depicts the country’s coat of arms in a way deemed inappropriate.
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However, the artwork on the cover was based on a painting by local artist Shia Yih Yiing, which had been showcased at a local art exhibition in 2014 without a problem.
This arrest puts into the spotlight the old habits of previous administrations, which have used such laws to silence critics and elicit fear about what people can say in the public sphere.
We expected more from Anwar’s administration. The PM himself had experienced the use of such laws against him by the powers that be back then.
Anwar ought to be the first to demand the abolition of such unjust laws that curb the people’s right to freedom of expression. Perhaps this government needs to be reminded of its promises to repeal laws that threaten this basic right.
Wong’s arrest sends a wrong signal about this administration’s commitment to deepen democracy. The people must have the democratic space to voice their opinions.
The government must lift the yoke of these dreaded laws, especially the three mentioned above.
It is not too late to change this unfortunate course of events.
First, the government must withdraw the case against Wong.
Second, government MPs, particularly ex-opposition members, should speak out for the repeal of these repressive laws, which for decades have been used to silence critics.
Some of these MPs have personal experiences of how such laws were used against them. They are also aware of how these laws curtailed their duties as opposition MPs to keep a check on government abuse.
The time to repeal the whole raft of repressive legislation is now.
The prime minister must make this the priority of his administration. Put Malaysia on the path of advancing democracy for the sake of future generations.
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
22 October 2023