Hundreds of Malaysian lawyers on October 16 marched towards the Malaysian parliament house demanding the government honor its two-year-old pledge to repeal the Sedition Act of 1948.
The march is set to add to mounting pressure on the government to abolish the colonial-era law, the use of which in an ongoing crackdown has drawn criticism from both local and international groups, including the United Nations.
Christopher Leong, President of the Bar Council of Malaysia, which represents 16,000 lawyers in peninsular Malaysia, was optimistic that their massage would be heard.
“The walk is a component in the process to advocate for change. In Malaysia change sometimes takes time. That doesn't mean therefore that we just sit back and let time pass. It is incumbent on us and very important that we do continue our advocacy towards achieving that change,” he said.
Prominent lawyer Amer Hamza Arshad welcomed new legislation but expressed his concern that it would replicate the previous act's more regressive aspects such as detention without trial.
“The government's going to introduce to a new set of legislation in order to replace the Sedition Act. We do not know in what form and how the act can ensure and guarantee freedom of speech. I think that's very important. We do not want another kind of act which is similar to the Sedition Act but they just, you know, change the name but in substance it remains the same. We do not want that kind of legislation,” he said.
Attorney Melissa Sasidaran said that the Sedition Act has been misused to clamped down on speech not only made by public figures but also by ordinary citizens.
“There was one I remember. All this lady posted after the Agong's (King's) speech during his birthday was 'Anyone listening to the Agong speech right now?' That was all that was posted and she was investigated for sedition. Although there's been no charges ever since, but looking at the current climate I think that's probably just matter of time. So that's why we are here today to call for repeal of the Sedition Act because Sedition Act has been so blatantly abused in that sense,” said Sasidaran.
Prime Minister Najib Razak pledged in 2011 that the law, which criminalizes speech with an undefined “seditious tendency” against the government, or which could upset racial harmony, would be repealed and replaced by new legislation.