On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Discourse vital in democracy

We don’t have to agree with each other but we must have meaningful discussions to have a healthy exchange of opinion. That’s how we learn.

FINALLY, we get to see some common sense and sanity. Malaysians certainly welcome the decision of Attorney-General Tan Sri Mohamed Apandi Ali in dropping the sedition charges against Dr Azmi Shahrom.

It’s better late than never. Enough time and energy have been wasted by the authorities and the Universiti Malaya law professor in having to deal with the charges.

Azmi is a law professor and he is expected to give his opinion on legal issues. That is what lawyers and law professors do.

But to accuse Azmi of sedition is way off tangent and to haul him to court seriously smacked of absurdity. It was completely ridiculous. For many, it seemed like a poor attempt to suppress criticism.

Last week, Apandi used his discretionary powers to withdraw the charges against Azmi under Section 4(1) of the Sedition Act.

Azmi was charged on Sept 2, 2014 under Section 4(1)(b) and alternatively under Section 4(1)(c) of the Sedition Act for remarks made in an Aug 14 news report titled “Take Perak crisis route for speedy end to Selangor impasse, Pakatan told”.

The trial in the Sessions Court only began in January after the popular don sought unsuccessfully to move it to the High Court to challenge the constitutionality of the Sedition Act, during which his lawyers argued that the law was invalid as it was not passed by the Malaysian Parliament.

Azmi, who is the son of former Universiti Sains Malaysia deputy vice-chancellor of student affairs Datuk Dr Sharom Ahmat, thus became the first academician to ever be charged with sedition in Malaysia.

Since 2014, at least 13 people comprising politicians, an activist and a journalist have been charged or arrested under the Sedition Act. If previously the Internal Security Act – which was repealed in 2012 – was used against those accused of threatening national security, the Sedition Act, introduced by the British during the colonial era to fight the communist insurgence, seems to have been given a new lease of life.

Politics is all about perception and it won’t be wrong to say that many Malaysians believe that the Sedition Act is now used against dissidents. But what is more upsetting for many fair-minded Malaysians is that a few characters, who have a reputation for instigating racist mob behaviour, have yet to be hauled to the courts to be charged with sedition.

We are often told of the purported lack of evidence when these serial offenders are so blatant with their rowdy behaviour, which clearly violates the Sedition Act.

Malaysians know who I am talking about, as these serial offenders appear to have made a career for themselves by becoming racist rabble rousers and proclaiming themselves to be leaders of one-man non-governmental organisations.

There is a difference between making seditious remarks that can threaten order and security and those who make criticisms against political leaders and court decisions.

Court decisions are subject to criticism but that is different from criticising judges, which may make one being cited for contempt of court.

We must not forget that our legal system is adversarial, and even if a decision has been made by the courts, there will be differences of opinion over its judgment. We should encourage a healthy exchange of opinion in the public sphere.

On Nov 23 last year, Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM) leader S. Arutchelvan was charged under the Sedition Act over remarks made on the judiciary and a court ruling. This was based on a statement he made in February in response to the Federal Court’s decision on Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim’s case.

Arutchelvan, popularly known as Arul, also claimed trial to an alternative charge under Section 233(1)(a) of the Communica­tions and Multimedia Act 1998 for allegedly posting a statement on Facebook with the intention to injure the feelings of others.

While there are those who share Arutchelvan’s opinion, it may be better to argue that Anwar had his day in court, and the fact that he chose not to take the stand did give rise to many questions.

Like it or not, lawyer Tan Sri Muhammad Abdullah Shafee, who represented the ¬≠government in the sodomy trial against Anwar, did – he went on a roadshow to give his views, in simple ordinary man’s language, to his listeners.

His move was subjected to much criticism by the Bar and some said he did so with the aim of getting the Attorney-General’s job. But we have to admit he had the guts to take on the criticism.

We are sure his actions, too, “injured the feelings of others”, but it would be ridiculous to charge him with sedition. Likewise, it is hardly convincing to charge the PSM leader with purportedly “injuring the feelings of others”.

With due respect to Arutchelvan, he is really a small fry in Malaysian politics. To be blunt, he is a nobody and it is a waste of taxpayers’ money to bring him to court.

The series of charges, using the Sedition Act, won’t benefit the leadership one bit. No matter what argument is used to cushion public criticism, it would be seen as a tool to suppress dissent by the opposition.

In a democracy, we must provide space for a meaningful political discourse. We don’t have to agree with each other but that is what democracy is about – to offer contrasting solutions to the voters so that we will make a wise decision on polling day.

Likewise, we expect teachers like Azmi Shahrom (who writes a fortnightly column in this newspaper called Brave New World) to share with his students and us, ordinary citizens, the different views on contentious issues. We want to listen to clever, rational, ¬≠moderate and convincing voices, certainly not ill-educated, racist goons who create fear in the streets or run havoc in malls. Now, that’s seditious!