On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Open to discussion

Dr Azmi Shahrom

Dr Azmi Shahrom

If we pride ourselves as a democracy and believe that civil society is an essential part of it, then surely a dissenting view should be tolerated, even encouraged. 

I WOULD not regard law lecturer Azmi Shahrom as my buddy, but he is someone I have engaged with regularly on a professional level.

The Universiti Malaya don isn’t your conventional academic. He keeps a long ponytail and is usually dressed casually in T-shirt and jeans. That’s a pretty cool image for a lecturer in a campus.

He is articulate, clever, open-minded and certainly opinionated. And now he is in trouble with the law.

Last week, Azmi, a long-time columnist of The Star (his column, “A Brave New World”, is published fortnightly on Wednesday), was charged with sedition.

All he said was that the way the Perak crisis back in 2009 was resolved was legally wrong. That was enough to be deemed seditious by the Attorney-General’s Chambers.

Azmi was charged under Section 4(1)(b) and Section 4(1)(c) of the Act for the comments which had appeared in a report in an online portal titled, “Take Perak crisis route for speedy end to Selangor impasse, Pakatan told” on Aug 14.

Now, the last time I checked, having an opinion, even if it runs contrary to the official view, is not a crime.

If we pride ourselves as a democracy and believe that civil society is an essential part of it, then surely a dissenting view should be tolerated, even encouraged.

Or have we come to a point where we have to succumb to the intimidation of the right-wingers, who cannot carry out a discourse intelligently and intellectually without rudely breaking into name-calling, with their favourite “anti this and that” labels?

For the record, I disagree with Azmi’s interpretation of that particular case in relation to what is going on in Selangor.

I am not a law graduate, nor am I a journalist specialising in legal matters, but I am still entitled to my opinion.

As a matter of fact, even lawyers cannot agree on the interpretation of any set of laws. That’s why they are in business. Furthermore, our judicial process is such that what is decided by one court can be overruled by another, so differing opinions will continue to flourish.

In my opinion, the law is pretty clear in the ongoing controversy over the position of the Mentri Besar in Selangor.

Under Articles LI (1), LIII (2)(a), (4) and LV (2)(a) of the Selangor State Constitution 1959, the Sultan of Selangor is given absolute discretionary power to appoint a Mentri Besar for the Selangor state government who, in the Ruler’s opinion, has the majority support of the State Legislative Assembly.

The keywords here are “absolute discretionary power” and “in the Ruler’s ¬≠opinion”.

But Azmi is a law professor. He would probably disagree with me and ask that I read these provisions alongside other laws and precedents.

He is entitled to give his views in the lecture halls, forums and even at the campus canteen, but the moment he speaks to the press, he opens himself up to being slapped with these sedition charges.

Many of us are probably unaware of the Sedition Act, a law that was promulgated back in 1948 during the Emergency.

It has undergone revisions but broadly speaking, any act, speech, words or publication are seditious if they have a tendency towards any of the following:

> To bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against any Ruler or government.

> To excite subjects to seek alteration other than by lawful means of any matter by law established.

> To bring into hatred or contempt the administration of justice in the country.

> To raise discontent or disaffection among the subjects.

> To promote ill will and hostility between races or classes.

> To question the provisions dealing with language, citizenship, the special position of the Malays and natives of Sabah and Sarawak and the sovereignty of the Rulers.

Seriously, most of us would find it difficult to accept that Azmi’s two sen’s worth of comments would cause Malaysians to tear one another apart, plunging the country into chaos. Most of what Azmi has written, in many publications and portals, may irritate some quarters, but it is Mickey Mouse stuff compared to the poison being spewed by some individuals who seem to have lost their sense of self-restraint.

In the Selangor saga, for example, some of the remarks made in the heat of the politicking may well fall within the ambit of “To bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against any Ruler or government”.

For sure, those individuals who criticise the Rulers and call for the setting up of a republic are open to being charged with sedition.

Let me put on record here also that this writer believes the use of the Sedition Act is necessary to stop the avalanche of hate comments that have flooded our social media by people of all races and religions, who do not seem to care that their careless comments can hurt the feelings of others.

We are not talking about glory-seeking politicians who know the consequences of their actions, but even ordinary Malaysians who think they can say anything they like in cyberspace. And now we even have those in Sabah and Sarawak who have called for secession, with little inkling that their remarks are seditious. In fact, the law regards it as treason.

Those are clear-cut cases, but certainly in the case of Azmi, the authorities should seriously reconsider their position to charge him with sedition.

He was making a comment in an area where he has the expertise, whether we agree with him or not. We know that in the most vibrant law classes, students are encouraged to argue against each other, and also against the professor. Open discussion in the media about legal issues is also one way to educate the public about the laws we live under.

Some of the best columnists in the world are professors of world-renowned law schools. In the United States, every decision of the Supreme Court is openly discussed in the media.

In The Star, we are proud that apart from Azmi, we also have Emeritus Professor Datuk Dr Shad Saleem Faruqi whose “Reflecting on The Law” column on Thursdays sheds light on many of the legal issues of the day.

I am an optimist. I like to believe that Malaysia still embraces divergent views, more so in our universities. The world has changed and, yes, Malaysia has changed.

In the course of my work, I have been praised as well as heavily criticised.

I appreciate the views of those who have made me better informed. But some of the views laced with outrageous and personal remarks had me in stitches. I guess it is better to laugh it off than to get angry with these individuals.

Yes, we understand realistically that in a complex country like Malaysia, there can never be uncontrolled open expression, like in the West. But we pray that those empowered to investigate and prosecute cases of sedition will be rational and allow common sense to prevail.