COMMENT The Malaysian Bar is heavily critical of the recent spate of arrests under the Societies Act 1966 and prosecutions under the Sedition Act 1948 and Penal Code.
The raft of arrests and prosecutions of individuals lately shows that we are undergoing an intense period of oppression against citizenry and regression in the rule of law marked by the aggressive curtailment of rights and fundamental liberties under our federal constitution.
These individuals are being charged with allegedly criticising or insulting political parties and critiquing or making comments, albeit adverse ones, with respect to court judgments.
These are clearly not offences that are envisaged by, and that are within the ambit of, either the Sedition Act 1948 or the Penal Code.
In order for legal decisions to stand the test of time, they must survive the test of public scrutiny. Only then can they be seen as sound judgments that will serve to govern our conduct and direct our actions.
In no way should criticism of court decisions, or how they came to be made, be viewed as seditious by virtue of being an affront to the administration of justice.
The Malaysian Bar is particularly appalled with the charges that have been brought today against Associate Professor Azmi Sharom of Universiti Malaya.
His comments about the Perak constitutional crisis of 2009 are wholly within the purview of academic freedom and public discourse.
This cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, constitute sedition.
Federal-state talks to resolve issues
Likewise, we reiterate that questioning the exercise of discretion should not be seen as being disrespectful to those to whom that discretion has been given, but a legitimate examination of the proper exercise of that discretion as permitted by law.
Secondly, our federal constitution gives to the state government jurisdiction over the administration of local government, which conceivably includes the creation of volunteer groups to assist with local administration.
The members of the Pasukan Petugas Sukarela (‘PPS’) are volunteers recruited from the community by the state government.
Any question over the legality of such groups should be settled by way of federal-state government discussion, and not by the arrest and detention, and the threat of arrest and detention, of members of such volunteer groups.
Even if there is a dispute as to the legitimacy of the PPS, whether under the Societies Act 1966 or otherwise, there appeared to be no imminent threat to national security, public safety or order that necessitated the police and Federal Reserve Unit to descend upon them in the manner that they did.
The arrest of members of the PPS immediately after their participation, at the invitation of the Penang state government, in the Merdeka Day parade in Penang was therefore an unnecessary, unreasonable and disproportionate use of police powers and discretion.
Power and discretion are conferred by legislation on the premise or presumption that they are to be exercised properly based on intelligence and common sense.
Arbitrary exercise by police
It appears that neither of these criteria was present. It gives rise to the impression that the police are arbitrarily exercising their powers merely because they believe they can do so with impunity. This is an abuse of power and process.
In that light, the threat by the inspector-general of police to investigate and possibly to charge people who criticise or allegedly disrespect him on Twitter is seen as an intimidation of members of the public, and is another example of a wholly inappropriate response.
The prime minister once famously declared that the days of “government knows best” are over. Yet the actions by the authorities in recent days to detain, arrest and/or prosecute individuals who have been perceived to have challenged or questioned the authorities, deny the very humility that that declaration presupposes.
The Malaysian Bar urges the authorities to cease acting in a repressive and oppressive manner. These recent events have made a mockery of the 57 years of independence that we have just celebrated. Malaysia must not become an authoritarian state.
CHRISTOPHER LEONG is president of the Malaysian Bar.