DATUK Nasir Safar‘s alleged racist remarks have sparked calls by Barisan Nasional component parties for Nasir to be charged with sedition and even detained without trial under the Internal Security Act. Buckling under such pressure, Home Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein announced on 4 Feb 2010 that the now former special officer of the prime minister would be investigated under the Sedition Act 1948.
But will an investigation under the Sedition Act help to foster national unity and promote democracy? Is silencing those who speak ill of other races, by threatening arrest and detention without trial, the best approach in managing and responding to different views?
The Sedition Act is an antiquated, pre-independence law that was introduced post World War II in Malaya to quell dissent against the re-established colonial British government. Under the Act, causing hatred or contempt or exciting disaffection against the Rulers or the government is illegal. So is promoting feelings of ill will and hostility between different races or classes, which is probably the section Nasir is being investigated under.
Sure, respecting national leaders and other races is desirable. But jailing someone for criticising the government or making racist remarks could be detrimental to the country in the long run.
Many established democracies such as Australia, New Zealand and the UK have either repealed or amended their sedition laws due to their severe restrictions on freedom of expression. Remaining laws in countries such as the US focus on curbing violent overthrow of the government instead of subjective matters like “disaffection” or “feelings of ill will”.
As convenient as it may be to jail government dissenters or racists, this is however not the best form of building a democratic society or maintaining public order. As the Supreme Court of South West Africa (Namibia) has noted: “Because people may hold their government in contempt does not mean a situation exists which constitutes a danger to the State’s security or the maintenance of public order. To stifle just criticism could as likely lead to these undesirable situations.”
So are we then saying that Nasir should get off scot-free, even if it’s eventually proven that he said Indians came to this country as beggars and Chinese women to sell their bodies? Yes, as far as fining or jailing him for sedition goes. As the oft-quoted saying goes, we may completely disagree with what Nasir is saying, but in the interest of democracy, we should nevertheless defend his right to say it.
Of course, if he had threatened violence, he should be charged with assault under the Penal Code. But really, it should no longer be a punishable crime to hurt one another’s feelings.
Malaysians have lived too long under “enforced politeness“, to quote a term by a Singaporean blogger about his own society. We keep our grouses to ourselves for fear of supposed sensitivities. Genuine dialogue between races or religions seem to be reserved only for political leaders, to be done behind closed doors. As if the rest of us are too immature to deal with such discussions.
As a result, the knee-jerk response to comments such as Nasir’s is for the hurt community to scream, “Shut him up!” or “Lock him up!” instead of calling for dialogue and rational debate to set matters straight.
Truth be told, it seems Nasir‘s alleged comments are not unique to him, and racist sentiments are expressed by Malaysians of all races. How then do we deal with this constructively instead of locking everybody up?
So if not jail or criminal proceedings, then what? Distancing itself from Nasir’s alleged remarks and announcing his resignation were good first steps by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s office.
Nasir‘s public apology, albeit with qualifications, was also a good move. To date, however, Umno has made no mention about taking disciplinary action against him for undermining the prime minister’s 1Malaysia campaign.
Beyond that, the Najib administration actually have other options that they are not exercising.
Instead of just saying how this incident should be a lesson to all and that citizenship cannot be questioned, Najib could be much more forceful in spelling out why Nasir’s alleged remarks were so wrong. Instead of highlighting the need, yet again, to be “racially sensitive“, the prime minister should instead be stressing that all citizens are equal, regardless of when our ancestors came to the country or who they were. Indeed, it was MCA’s Datuk Ti Lian Ker who demonstrated the ability to express this much-needed sentiment, instead of the prime minister.
Najib could also educate the public on Malaysian history and reiterate the many contributions of non-Malay Malaysians since the country was founded. He could promote equality for all Malaysians under the constitution, regardless of race. Like his Umno Youth chief Khairy Jamaluddin, he could tell the people it’s time to set aside the Malay dominance rhetoric and be more inclusive, if we want Malaysia to progress.
If he said all these, he would demonstrate his ability to take a principled stand, regardless of whether such remarks would make him unpopular in certain quarters. Indeed, it would be more reassuring and convincing if the prime minister showed leadership and stood up for all Malaysians, instead of using police action to punish and intimidate.
Perhaps Najib and all Malaysians could also learn from then presidential candidate of the United States Barack Obama, when the blatantly racist comments of his former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, were aired during his campaign.
In a speech that challenged Americans to deal with long-term racial issues, Obama said, “The fact is the comments have been made and the issues that have surfaced over the last few weeks reflect the complexities of race in this country that we’ve never really worked through — a part of our union that we have yet to perfect. And if we walk away now, if we simply retreat into our respective corners, we will never be able to come together and solve challenges like health care, or education, or the need to find good jobs for every American.”
Shutting down difficult conversations through fear of punishment is but an inferior response in a democracy. There are other ways to respond. Question is, can we trust ourselves and our political leadership to know any better?