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LETTER | “People in power” writes Ronald Irving in The Law is a Ass, “do not like to be mocked. Roman law made singing abusive chants a capital offence. In Germanic law insults were punished by cutting out the tongue and early English law had similar penalties under King Alfred.”

The harsh law of libel was needed to protect monarchs. However scandalous the conduct of the monarchs may be, it could not be criticised or commented upon. Monarchs were deemed above the law and it was believed that they could do no wrong. This was the feudalist philosophy that had been perpetrated for centuries.

A person may not hate the country but, if the monarch’s behaviour is such which calls for action, any such call cannot be classified as disloyalty, or sedition warranting criminal sanction.

In 18th century England, whenever a monarch was criticised through speech or in writing or caricatured unfavourably, they wanted the author of such publications punished.

Sedition was not a law to protect the state but to shield the monarch from being ridiculed. The law of sedition is a very strong weapon in the armour of the monarch to quell any comment directed against him or her. Truth was unimportant.

Many countries have realised that harsh laws alone would not effectively deter, curb, or put an end to negative social conduct. In Western democracies, the degree of tolerance shown to dissenting views seems remarkably commendable and in this category we could include Japan and India.

In India, the tolerance level as far as freedom of speech is concerned, is quite high. However, there are those who feel that the level of tolerance in India leaves much to be desired. Those who take this view ignore the zero tolerance levels in countries like Pakistan and Saudi Arabia.

Going by this line of thought there are countries who have inherited the English Law by virtue of the fact that they were former colonies of Britain, still think and behave, that the law on sedition which saw its birth in England is still helpful to strangle freedom of speech and freedom of thought.

We must remember that the law on sedition which came into effect in the 18th-century England has now been abolished. However, that same law which found its way to India and finally arrived in Malaysia during the height of the Communist insurgency is still enjoying longevity.

The emergency situation has gone into history, yet we are in the 18th-century England rather than 21st-century Malaysia, while we still claim to represent modernity, respect human rights which encompasses freedom of speech.

We are democratic country. We have a constitution which regulates the rights of the citizens, and explains the powers of the government and those who belong to the privileged class. Although equality is spelt out in the constitution yet we conceded that inequality can prevail in certain defined circumstances.

In a democracy, freedom of speech is a right that cannot be eroded, yet our constitution and plethora of laws have curtailed that right, saying such curtailment as a necessity in a multiracial society, and to maintain interfaith harmony.

It may be true that for a young nation with a nasty experience of racial violence of May 13, 1959 such a safeguard was actually necessary. However, its prolonged longevity seems to indicate that those in power have retained such restriction on freedom of speech for some hidden purposes.

Thus, experience tells us that for some time, and especially after the 12th general elections, the abuse against minority was too vocal and frightfully pronounced; and those in power failed to see or deal with the danger. The minorities were threatened, yet the police, the government; and even the then prime minister were absolutely indifferent to such disturbing behaviour.

We must remember that “freedom of speech” is a treasured democratic right and guaranteed by the constitution. Hence, any law that attempts to curb or restrict the freedom of speech must be viewed with suspicion.

However, it cannot be denied that in any society, whether it be homogenous or heterogeneous there bound to be clash of opinions and ideologies. And to compound this clash we also have the age-old religious conflict which is another fertile source for the growth of hatred and disharmony.

To prevent such an eventuality we have the Penal Code to warn troublemakers that the law will not hesitate to initiate criminal proceedings against them. Further, the belief in rule of law is gaining importance and the people are looking at ways where oppressions could be put in its rightful place, the dustbin of history.

Political differences are, by and large, tolerable, and has been tolerated. Ideological differences too have begun to accommodate co-existence not only on state-to-state levels, but within a state where diametrically opposed ideologies are tolerated.

A classic example would be China and Hong Kong. Another country where different ideologies have found common ground for co-existence is India. There, the communists, socialists, religious fundamentalists, atheists and those parties which subscribe to democracy have forged a commonality based on the unity of India.

This may be fragile understanding, but, recent developments there are illustrative of the fact that different ideologies, different religious beliefs with political clout could still exist and work towards the betterment of the Indian nation, or achieve some accommodation in the practical political front.

While India practices democracy, China which has communism as its national ideology, has no desire to subscribe to democracy as we understand it: Westminster style democracy. Countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran and most of the Middle East countries subscribing to Islam have no appetite for democracy, and even if they do, especially Iran which holds elections, it is a tepid approach to people’s power. 

There is a story about a visit of some Easterners to the law courts in Rome where a case of embezzlement of state funds by public official was going on. The Easterners were baffled by this trend and remarked, “why waste time trying the scoundrels? In our country, we would have beheaded them on the spot.”

Cicero, the great Roman orator and lawyer had no diplomatic response. “That is not how we do things in Rome," he said.

If we look near and far, we see the loud calls for democratic rule; but, at the same time we also hear the voice drowning the calls for freedom of expression. The competition is now between freedom of expression and sedition. Will freedom of speech survive the rabid assaults by sedition law? The question must be disturbing but that is what the Malaysians are faced with.

And now, the former chief justice of Malaysia Zaki Azmi says that the “Sedition Act should not be abolished.” According to him, “it is needed for harmonious racial, religious relations and to ensure national institution such as the Malay rulers are respected.”

What has escaped the attention of many is the fact that harmonious racial, religious relations should be developed beginning at schools at a very young age. It should have been done soon after Merdeka, which we failed to do.

It will be beneficial if we can start teaching little children to respect and love one another starting from kindergarten, gradually moving up. I am afraid that current system of education only helps to polarise the students. The polarities are so strong that by the time they reach secondary, college or university level, they had grown up to hate those who are not of their kind rather than love or respect each other.

Thus, law alone will not help create harmonious race, religious relationship. It is the character development at a young age that helps build harmony. There is no love or understanding in law. It is threat and punishment with display of force. We need to assure Malaysians that citizens are equals and they too deserve acceptance and respect.

The Malay rulers in this country are correctly and widely protected and the reverence towards them is unmistakably abundant, but the rulers themselves should show that they are sensitive to the welfare of the people and the country and loyal to the constitution.

Rulers must show themselves that they are made of tough mental stuff capable of tolerating adverse comments and at the same time receptive to constructive criticisms. Even if the criticisms against them are weak, unfounded but not obnoxious, and do not go beyond the boundary of fair comment, the should not complain nor seek the aid of law of sedition. They too must cultivate the culture of tolerance.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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