KUALA LUMPUR. Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak yesterday warned that he would take stern action against those deemed to have made seditious remarks or acts, two days after he announced that he was ditching plans to repeal the controversial Sedition Act.
The Umno (United Malays National Organisation) president’s words – which followed similarly hawkish comments by home minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi at the close of the ruling Malay party’s annual assembly – were greeted by loud cheers from more than 2,000 Umno delegates. But critics have viewed the retention of the law as a sign of an impending clampdown on political dissent.
“We call for the Attorney- General to be firm (in prosecuting) and we want the police to investigate closely so there is a clear signal. Don’t give any more warnings. We want to guarantee peace in the country,” Najib said.
He had announced that amendments to the Act would be tabled in Parliament at its next sitting early next year.
The amendments would protect the “sanctity of Islam” and criminalise insults against other religions, as well as make it seditious to call for states to secede from Malaysia, such as calls recently made by some Sabah and Sarawak activists.
Zahid, who is also an Umno vice-president, vowed “swift action” to allay concerns from some delegates that maintaining the law would be pointless if it was not fully utilised.
He said that since 2010, 40 people had been charged, with 12 hauled to court this year alone, leading to cries from those in the hall to “arrest more”.
At a press conference after closing the assembly, Najib denied that he was bowing to pressure from hardliners despite having promised to repeal the Sedition Act two years ago.
“No, that’s not true. It’s to protect the peace so there is no interracial conflict. I have always maintained that this law is good for both Malays and non-Malays,” he told reporters.
Critics had accused the prime minister of reneging on his promise to repeal the Sedition Act and abandoning pledges of liberal reforms he made soon after coming to power in 2009.
But Najib pointed out that while some other countries still maintained the Internal Security Act – which allows for detention without trial – Malaysia had done away with it.
“We cannot have absolute freedom. Freedom must be on the basis of protecting our country’s fundamentals. You should not dispute this. We have gone a long way in terms of making more space within the context of a more democratic society,” he argued.
But the opposition and civil society have rubbished claims that the Sedition Act fostered harmony.
The Malaysian Bar, which last month organised a rare march of hundreds of lawyers, said on Friday that “it is delusional to imagine such draconian legislation would foster national peace” as claimed by Umno.