Repealing the Sedition Act for a more open society
MALAYSIA'S political liberalisation is being driven by the prime minister's earnest desire to fulfil the dictates of a democratic constitution. As has been emphasised over and over by Datuk Seri Najib Razak, the aim is to ensure that the laws of the nation meet the aspirations of the founding fathers. History has not made it easy to give up the untrammelled powers of the executive in favour of civil liberties to be arbitrated by the judiciary.
It is thus to Najib's enormous credit that he is dragging the country into finally meeting the terms of the charter of its inception. In the latest move to prevent "crimes against the people", he announced the government's intention to do away with the Sedition Act 1948, which will be replaced with the National Harmony Act.
Although admitting of the challenges ahead, the prime minister is firm in his promise to find the fine balance that will realise the constitutional provision of free expression for every citizen while keeping the peace. Naturally, certain areas are non-negotiable because these define the political character of the nation. They are "the monarchy, maintaining unity and the people's rights".
It is no simple matter to preserve the same while approaching them from the opposite perspective. Whereas the negative space has been shut down by the Sedition Act, can a positive space be expanded through the National Harmony Act? What shape should the law take to nurture a sense of responsibility while not inhibiting individual freedoms? Najib is banking that a progressively maturing electorate will fight as hard for the one as for the other.
From 1948 to the present, seditious words written and spoken have been outlawed. And, for the most part, quite rightly so. Society, however, has changed from the onset of the Emergency and subsequent racial troubles to a better informed and more demanding present. The arbitrary exercise of authority belongs to the past, and while what has to be protected must continue to be protected, this should be done more judiciously.
It is in this respect --that of clarity -- that the British philosopher John Locke was quoted by the prime minister in his speech on Wednesday. Further, in confessing that society's "moral courage" and "political commitment" may not yet be all there for this purpose, a gestation period or some temporary imperfections in the forthcoming Act should be expected.
Whatever will transpire only time will tell, but it is for every citizen to support this endeavour which will make for the freedoms that will enable the free flow of creativity and innovation so necessary towards the next level of national development.