Library of Congress

Law Library of Congress

The Library of Congress > Law Library > News & Events > Global Legal Monitor

Malaysia: Human Rights Experts Again Urge Sedition Law Abolition

(Oct. 15, 2014) On October 8, 2014, a group of experts associated with the United Nations Human Rights Council called for the abolition of Malaysia’s 1948 Sedition Act. U.N. officials have frequently urged that the law be dropped. (Colleen Mallick, UN Rights Experts Urge Malaysia to Abolish Sedition Act, PAPER CHASE (Oct. 9, 2014); Press Release, Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, Malaysia Sedition Act Threatens Freedom of Expression by Criminalising Dissent (Oct. 8, 2014).) The group included David Kaye, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression; Maina Kiai, the Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association; Michel Forst, the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights defenders; and Gabriela Knaul, the Special Rapporteur on the independence of judges and lawyers. (Press Release, supra.)

In July 2014, the government of Malaysia had announced that it would in the future replace the Sedition Act with a new “National Harmony Act.” The new law will be designed to prevent people from inciting religious or ethnic hatred while preserving freedom of speech. (Constance A. Johnson, Malaysia: Sedition Law to Be Repealed, GLOBAL LEGAL MONITOR (July 19, 2014).)

The Sedition Act

The Sedition Act criminalizes expressing seditious words or acting with seditious tendencies in ways that incite hatred, dissatisfaction with the government or the courts, hostility between racial or class groups, or questioning of provisions of the Constitution. (Press Release, supra; Sedition Act, Act 15, 1948, LAWS OF MALAYSIA (2006).) In addition to actions and speech, the Act outlaws printing, publishing, selling, offering for sale, distributing, or importing seditious publications. (Sedition Act, art. 4.) The punishment is a fine and/or imprisonment for up to three years; repeat offenders may be given sentences of up to five years. (Id.)

Criticism of the Act

According to the U.N. experts, the Sedition Act is vaguely worded and thus can be used to prevent “Malaysians from expressing and debating, freely and openly, a diverse range of political opinions and ideas.” (Press Release, supra.) The experts stated that there have been 23 cases in which individuals have been charged with sedition; those accused include legislators, political leaders, human rights defenders, academicians, students, journalists, and lawyers. (Id.)

Non-governmental human rights groups have voiced the same concern. (Mallick, supra.) Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch’s Deputy Asia Director, stated, “[t]he Malaysian government is increasingly using the Sedition Act to instill fear and silence in political opponents and critics.” (Malaysia: Sedition Act Wielded to Silence Opposition, Government Campaign Violates Free Expression Rights, HUMAN RIGHTS WATCH (Sept. 14, 2014).)

Amnesty International has questioned a number of Malaysia’s sedition cases, including the re-opened investigation of Anwar Ibrahim, which was based on a speech he gave in 2011 that was critical of the government. (Malaysia: Sedition Investigation into Opposition Leader Politically Motivated, AMNESTY INTERNATIONAL (Sept. 23, 2014).) Ibrahim’s lawyer was charged with sedition in August 2014, based on a written statement he issued on behalf of his client. (Mallick, supra.)

Response of the Malaysian Government

Following the recent U.N. criticism, Malaysian Home Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi said that the recommendations of the experts may not be suitable for Malaysia. He stated, “[w]e respect the views of the UN, but they also need to respect the mould of our country’s population and politics, and they cannot use their mould on the political landscape of our country.” (Joseph Sipalan, After Rebuke on Sedition Act, Minister Claims UN “Mould” May Not Fit Malaysia’s Landscape, MALAY MAIL ONLINE (Oct. 9, 2014).)