KUALA LUMPUR, Sept 5 – Global business magazine The Economist has questioned Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s credentials as a reformer in the wake of a blitz on opposition politicians, an academic and a journalist using the colonial era Sedition Act. Repealing the dreaded Internal Security Act and embracing economic liberalisation in his first term in office, 2009-2012, became the basis for his supporters calling Najib a “reformer”, but the events of the past two weeks have caused a major dent to his reputation, the publication said. Three opposition parliamentarians have been charged with sedition since August 19 for making statements critical of the government, namely PKR vice-president N. Surendran, PAS central committee member Khalid Samad and PKR strategy director Rafizi Ramli.
Surendran’s arrest was most notable as he is also a lawyer defending opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, against charges of sodomy. His charges stem from having issued a press release last April that called an appellate-court judgment against Anwar “flawed, defensive and insupportable”, and for an online video in which he said that the sodomy charges against Anwar were “an attempt to jail the opposition leader of Malaysia” for which “we hold Najib Razak personally responsible.” Rafizi, meanwhile had been investigated under the Sedition Act and charged with “insult and provocation in a manner likely to disturb the peace” for alleging that Najib’s party Umno sowed religious discord for political gain, The Economist reported.
Another politician hauled up during the same period was Mohammad Nizar Jamaluddin from the Islamist party PAS, but he was charged with “criminal defamation” against Najib in a speech he made two years earlier. The height of the government’s tough political actions came on September 2, as the “sedition” dragnet widened, roping in a law professor, Dr Azmi Sharom. He was charged with sedition for remarks made about a governance crisis five years ago in the state of Perak. According to The Economist, none of these statements were seditious, in the usual sense, in that none of them advocated the government’s overthrow.
Calling Malaysia’s sedition law almost comically broad, the publication reported that it is also selectively enforced in that Rafizi’s “insulting and provocative” remarks were investigated while Umno vice-president and Home Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi calling ethnic-Chinese Malaysians “ungrateful” and “insulting Islam and the Malays under the pretence of democracy”, were not Those charged could eventually prevail in court, but they face long trials and possibly multiple appeals. Surendran believes the charges he is facing is meant to stifle his efforts to defend Anwar in an upcoming trial, besides being “part of a wave of repression”.
Meanwhile, Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan, a prominent lawyer and human-rights advocate, told The Economist that the government is using the Sedition Act to “assert power over the people and to create a climate of fear. And it’s working.” Referring to Najib’s promise to repeal the Sedition Act in 2012, a government spokesman said that the Act will be replaced with new legislation from late next year that “promotes national harmony whilst protecting Malaysian citizens from racial or religious hatred.”
The publication also noted the public withdrawal of support for the Najib administration by former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad occured on August 18, one day before the first sedition charge was filed against Surendran. In the final analysis, The Economist considers that by pandering to the right in his own party, Najib risks tarnishing his reformist image. After all, it is hard to be the face of progress and moderation while leading a government that seeks to jail its critics.