DOES Malaysia’s monarchy need special legal protection from insults or ridicule? Former Court of Appeal judge Datuk Mohd Noor Abdullah recently mooted a Treason Act to protect the royal institution from being maligned. This followed the arrest and investigation of a woman and her friends who made critical comments of the Yang di-Pertuan Agong’s speech on Facebook. Rural and Regional Development Minister Datuk Seri Mohd Shafie Apdal and former DAP vice-chairperson Tunku Abdul Aziz Ibrahim have expressed support for such a law.
The Nut Graph asks political scientist Dr Wong Chin Huat whether Malaysia needs yet another law to curb citizens’ freedom of expression and what the impact would be.
We already have a Sedition Act. Do we also need a Treason Act?
The Treason Act being proposed is essentially a lese-majeste law. But that might sound too feudal and make Malaysia look like a paranoid monarchy. And Barisan Nasional (BN) chairperson and Mr Global Movement of Moderates, Datuk Seri Najib Razak, might not be too happy to be known as the world’s “moderate lese-majeste prosecutor”.
Lese-majeste laws have commonly been used to stifle dissent. In Thailand, Ampon Tangnoppakul, a 62-years-old retiree was sentenced to 20 years jail for sending four text messages deemed insulting to the King and Queen. He eventually died in jail.
Yes, we do have a Sedition Act, which makes it a crime “to bring into hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against any Ruler or against any Government.” It also categorically forbids any advocacy of republicanism. Upon conviction, first-time offenders can be fined up to RM5,000 and/or jailed up to three years, and repeated offenders can be jailed up to five years. Mohd Noor wants a minimum penalty of two years in jail for insulting the monarchy. In other words, he finds the Sedition Act too lenient.
The question then is why not amend the Sedition Act to carry a heavier penalty? Perhaps Mohd Noor Abdullah, or whoever is behind him, worries that such an amendment will only cause the public to examine the rationale for the Sedition Act. The Sedition Act is still being used to persecute political dissidents even though Najib had announced in 2012 that it would be repealed and replaced with a National Harmony Act. Proponents of the Treason Act probably also love the word “treason”, which sounds more serious and legitimate than “sedition” and which may allow witch-hunters the self-righteous joy of fantasising themselves as patriots.
Essentially treason is the crime of acting against one’s sovereign or country. What is under attack that would require such a law to be in place to protect the social order?
Treason is the common weapon of governments to prosecute their enemies when their opponents’ actions can be linked to serving the interests of foreign countries, harming their own country’s security or attempting to overthrow the government of the day. For example, some American politicians now want Edward Snowden, the former CIA technical assistant who blew the whistle on the US government’s online spying operation, to be tried for treason.
The call for a Treason Act in Malaysia was triggered by the police investigation of Melissa Gooi and her Facebook friends who reported digestive discomfort after hearing the King’s speech, which they considered too partisan.
The question is, even assuming that Gooi and her friends were maliciously reporting false news, what harm can her reported biological reaction cause the nation or the continuity of constitutional monarchy in this country? Is Melissa Gooi our functional equivalent of Edward Snowden? Are our Facebookers so powerful?
Do other democracies have a treason law in their statutes?
Nation states need self-defense so even democracies will have treason laws in one form or another. However, this must not be mistaken for laws that are meant to protect sovereigns or governments from verbal or symbolic insults.
In the UK, the Treason Act 1351 is still in force. Amongst others, it classifies treason as, “When a Man doth compass or imagine the Death of our Lord the King, or of our Lady his [Queen] or of their eldest Son and Heir”. So, while the law does not outlaw “negative digestive reaction” in response to the sovereign’s speeches or acts, theoretically you must not curse, “To hell with the Queen!” In reality, however, Britons are quite free to curse Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Phillip or Prince Charles. The law was made during King Edward III’s 25th year of reign, 662 years ago.
Many Americans as well as foreigners have analysed, documented and disseminated the physical similarities between George W Bush and chimpanzees. The last time I checked, no one has ever been prosecuted for insulting the president, let alone for treason.
Why? Firstly, democracy is not France under King Louis XIV, who reportedly proclaimed “L’état, c’est moi” (“I am the state”). Insulting a person, even the most powerful one, is not equivalent to insulting the state. Secondly, and more importantly, democracy must be strong enough to withstand insults.
What is problematic about having a Treason Act from a citizen’s perspective?
It aims to extract respect for the sovereign or government by coercion. It’s an insult to both democracy and the monarchy. We should uphold the King or Queen because we love to, not because we have to. Whatever that is imposed will be opposed. It’s not rocket science, just the simple application of Newton’s Third Law.
Dr Mahathir amended the constitution so that the monarchs would not be above the law, while he, arguably, remained above it.
Why is this Act being proposed now? Is there a real chance at all that such an Act would be passed in Parliament?
This proposed Treason Act is part of Umno’s post-election hangover. It is still trying to assure itself that it has found a way to restore its past hegemony even though the two-coalition competition has entered its second term.
I don’t think this proposed Act will find its way to Parliament. Mohd Noor Abdullah is probably already an embarrassment to his former bench colleagues following his recent views on Chinese Malaysians’ “betrayal” in the elections. Najib may allow this grandstanding before the Umno general assembly but the prime minister is too smart to allow this to be made into law.