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Malaysia needs to curb its ethno-religious politics, but how?

More than a law, what is perhaps needed is a healthy and open discussion on issues that divide the nation
Malaysian Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim, offers prayers after taking the oath during his swearing-in ceremony at the National Palace in Kuala Lumpur on Nov. 24, 2022. His government has announced plans to enact the State and Nation Act to forbid any speech or content critical of race, religion, and royalty, that may lead to communal tensions

Malaysian Prime Minister, Anwar Ibrahim, offers prayers after taking the oath during his swearing-in ceremony at the National Palace in Kuala Lumpur on Nov. 24, 2022. His government has announced plans to enact the State and Nation Act to forbid any speech or content critical of race, religion, and royalty, that may lead to communal tensions. (Photo: AFP)

Published: July 21, 2023 11:43 AM GMT
Updated: July 25, 2023 05:31 AM GMT

There was much skepticism when the government announced plans to enact the State and Nation Act. This new law is designed to forbid any speech or content that is critical of race, religion and royalty (3Rs), which can lead to communal tensions.

The new law would preserve the peace and security of Malaysia, according to Communications and Digital Minister Fahmi Fadzil. “Some laws are still lacking, but this new Act is in the interest of the peace and security of the country.”

There was, however, nothing lacking when a high-level politician, a vocal and influential opposition leader, was charged with insulting a sultan under the Sedition Act in a court on July 18.

The Sedition Act 1948 and the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, among others, are the two most used laws in Malaysia to book offenses against 3Rs. They have been effective in penalizing those who question the special position of Malays, Islam and the monarchy.

Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s latest statement attests to that. He said the Sedition Act will not be repealed even after the new State and Nation Act is enacted, although he had promised during his election campaign that he would do so.

Politicians from both sides of the divide have long been exploiting the 3Rs to garner support and votes. Using fear as a tactic, they tell people of their race or religion that their rights will vanish once politicians from other races take over the government.

"The government is looking at a quick way to deal with offenders"

With the upcoming elections in six of the 13 states next month, this fear-mongering frenzy is fully on. Social media is flooded with campaigning posts, and some are peppered with hate speech and disinformation touching on the 3Rs.

Police are investigating several reports and even big names are not being spared. Lim Guan Eng and Abdul Hadi Awang are being investigated over their public remarks on religion. Lim is from the Democratic Action Party which is part of the ruling bloc, while Hadi is president of the Islamist party PAS (Parti Islam Se-Malaysia) and with the opposition.

The new law will impose civil penalties. “It means that if one violates it, he or she will be fined. That is easier to solve or convict,” said de facto law minister Azalina Othman.

The Sedition Act is geared toward the legal prosecution procedures to ascertain crime and to decide on punishment, which is generally time-consuming. The government is looking for a quick way to punish offenders, hoping it would have a deterrent effect.

If this approach can effectively restrict the much-dreaded exploitation of the 3Rs, that’ll be well and good. It will be a much-welcomed change when bread-and-butter issues and community affairs take center-stage in political campaigning, rather than race and religion bashing.

There is, however, fear that this new law could be the latest addition to the arsenal of formal controls that curb civil liberties. History is dotted with incidences where laws have been misused to strengthen the political power of the ruling party or coalition and to silence dissidents.

Some lawyers have already cautioned on the need to ensure fair enforcement of this and other laws.

"Once this law is passed, it will not automatically inspire confidence"

That would mean taking action against people like Islamic preacher Zakir Naik, should they violate the 3Rs law. Naik, a fugitive from India had allegedly made inflammatory statements against the Chinese and Indian communities in Malaysia years ago. He plans to return to Malaysia once his programs in Oman are over, as disclosed by his lawyer in March.

Prompt action also should be taken against those who use Christians as their political bogeyman. There shall be an end to politicians, who at almost every election wildly claim that there is a “Christian agenda to take over the country.” 

Earlier this year, an opposition politician made a police report and public statements accusing a cabinet minister of proselytizing Christianity to Muslim youths. Police investigation showed that the claims were false but no action was taken against the politician for making a false police report.

The new law will not automatically inspire confidence. If anything, it will do the opposite. Christians and other non-Muslims will likely second-guess their every move and err on the side of caution. Catholic parishes will probably revisit their interfaith initiatives or may even put them on hold until the dust settles.

That is because the 3Rs have always served as the spine for Malaysian politics. Parties have built their political strength on these issues, using hate speech and disinformation as vehicles. Removing any mention of the 3Rs from politics seems almost impossible.

The government cannot adopt a short-term approach and sweep issues concerning race and religion under the new law. Neither can the government afford to be selective in enforcement.

There needs to be a political will to encourage healthy and open discussions on the 3Rs and other issues that divide the nation. Only then will a mature and strong society emerge, if that is what the Anwar administration is aiming for.

*Vanitha Nadaraj is a freelance journalist and social observer based in Kuala Lumpur. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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