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Act is still being used to persecute political dissidents even though Najib had announced in 2012 that it would be repealed and replaced with a National Harmony Act.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.
Could Umno leaders themselves, such as former Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad when he amended the constitution twice to curb the powers of royalty, be deemed treasonous under a Treason Act?
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.
Wong Chin Huat is a big fan of Pakistani diva Hina Sultan. He prays that his aesthetic taste will not land him in a treason or sedition trial.
Flag of Truth says
The problem with this country is enforcement. We have the mechanism but we are quite slow in implementing it. The insults against the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong should not have happened in the first place if people are patriotic and loyal to this country. The Yang Di-Pertuan Agong has done nothing to insult these individuals, and yet they boldly say what they should not.
If my own brother or my own flesh does such a thing, I would certainly smack him on the face. But some people choose to defend such individuals in the name of freedom. I wonder whether they were taught and understand the Rukun Negara. Well, I doubt it. Things like this are not important, their personal interest is more important than anything else.
JW Tan says
The freedom to dissent is more important than all that. Limits on freedom of speech or lese-majeste laws are basically tyranny in action.
Who’s more patriotic, a yes-man who simply agrees with everything the government of the day does, or someone who loves his or her country enough to speak out when the authorities do something bad?
The second Rukunegara is Kesetiaan kepada Raja dan Negara. It does not mean the individual Raja, it means the office of the Agong, the head of state, and the country. Not the government either.
Les Majeste has always been used as a suppression tool by the ruling elite. It is a self preservation setup to be used whenever convenient.
1) When Mahathir removed some of the “powers”of the sultans, it should have been the worst “insult” ever. Was there any action? NO
2) When MCA (recently) wanted to punish a Johor MP for taking up a post in the Johor Govt, on the behest of the Sultan, it would be a terrible insult. Was any action taken? NO
Why was action not taken for the above extreme insults, but immediate action taken against regular rakyat? Convenience and intimidation, that’s why. Les Majeste should never be a law. This is not the 5th century AD.
Flag of Truth says
@ JW Tan
There is no absolute freedom in this world. It must be defined and also limited by law. I have read what was posted on the Facebook of the ‘accused’ person, and I am sure what she said is insulting (to the Yang Di Pertuan Agong), so let the law decide.
Yes I agree with you. The second Rukunegara is about Kesetiaan kepada Raja dan Negara, but you are wrong if you said that it only refers to the Agong only. The monarchy as an institution is very important. Unless you are ignorant, it is a fact that the Council of Rulers (Majlis Raja-raja) will appoint one among themselves every 5 years to be the Yang Di Pertuan Agong. So it is not wise to insult one sultan who is going to be the Yang Di Pertuan Agong.
Insulting the Monarchy Institution is not about freedom of speech. And that cannot be considered as being patriotic at all. I am sure these individuals don’t care to learn and understand about the Rukunegara at all. Maybe they don’t feel that they belong to this country.
JW Tan says
It refers to the office, not the people. You may think it refers to the people, and it is true that there are only a limited pool of people who can become the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, but these people do not earn the people’s loyalty by virtue of their birth, only by virtue of their ascension to the office.
The problem with lese-majeste laws is that they are wholly unnecessary. You think that posting something about digestive disorders on Facebook hurts a monarch, who is far richer, more powerful and has the state apparatus at their disposal? It’s tyranny.
Flag of Truth says
# JW Tan
From your statement, you clearly do not understand the concept of the Monarchy, and also the history why the monarchs are willing to transfer their power to the central governtment.
Unless the Yang Di Pertua Agong or the Sultans are not able to perform their duty according to the constitution, then we should give them our utmost respect and loyalty. It is disgusting when someone offends this institution openly.
It is more disgusting for someone to disengage the brain that “Allah” has given us.
Flag of Truth says
The brain should be used for good things and also finding the truth. :). For some people, even when they are presented with the truth, they just ignore it. 🙂
Why I don’t respect the Rukunegara:
NOW THEREFORE, WE, the people of Malaysia, pledge to concentrate the whole of our energy and efforts to achieve these ambitions based on the following principles:
BELIEF IN GOD
LOYALTY TO KING AND COUNTRY
SUPREMACY OF THE CONSTITUTION
RULE OF LAW
COURTESY AND MORALITY
1. Belief in god – I don’t believe in the existence of god
2. Loyalty to King and country – Country, maybe. King – what for? A wise man once said that; “Patriotism is the last refuge of scoundrels” and I believe him.
3. Supremacy of the constitution – Our constitution has been changed many times according to how beneficial it is for the ruling government. Why should I respect something so arbitrary?
4.Rule of the law – Gandhi once said: there are unjust laws just like there are unjust men. Why should I respect every law (including the bad ones)?
5. Courtesy and Morality – Acceptable but I don’t need a Rukunegara to teach me courtesy and/or specifically morality.
Thus, I believe the Rukunegara is entirely unnecessary.
I’m trying to debate this logically and not just to insult anyone
DR. HAMID IBRAHIM says
It is with regret that I note that the persons
concerned are talking sense. There is enough
protection in the PENAL CODE. See our books
on the Malaysian Penal Code by KC Vohrah and Hamid
Ibrahim. Probably you are aware that the PENAL
CODE was brought from Calcutta, directly to Penang
and the British adopted it in full without any
addition and alteration.
In fact, the time has now come for Malaysians
to consider provisions relating to the YDP AGONG, i.e.
SS. 122, 123, 125 and 126 as to their need,
as we have other criminal laws relating to
For your information, there is a lot of
duplication in criminal legislation; I
have written that AN INDEPENDENT COMMISSION
BE SET UP TO CONSIDER THE ENTIRE CRIMINAL
LAWS AND CRIMINAL JUSTICE SYSTEM IN LINE
WITH PRESENT DAY CONDITIONS.
THE BN HAS NO TIME FOR CORRECTING THE INCORRECT
God save the BN government.
I’m curious but once India became independent and a republic, didn’t they have to alter some of the codes?