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Lese majesty is no longer relevant in 21st century Malaysia

June 4, 2012

FMT LETTER: From Sharifuddin Abdul Latiff, via e-mail

The Malaysian Civil Liberties Movement (MCLM) is appalled by the punitive sentence passed on Chan Hon Keong for insulting the Sultan of Perak online three years ago. To single out one person from the thousands who went online to express their anger and outrage at Barisan Nasional’s shameful coup d’etat in Perak with the sultan’s apparent complicity, is most unjust.

Chan was charged under Section 233(1)(a) of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, that is, improper use of network facilities or service. But his crime is one we would call lese majesty, that is, to insult the dignity of the ruler. For that, he was given the maximum sentence which is a one-year jail term and RM50,000 fine.

That being the case, Malaysia would be one of a small handful of countries in the world to recognise lese majesty as a crime.  MCLM is very concerned about this on three counts:

First, that the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 has been used to stifle free speech. It is very obvious that Chan is being made an example of by the Barisan Nasional government to deter other Malaysians from expressing their criticisms online, not just of the Malay rulers but also Barisan Nasional.

Furthermore, none of the sycophantic BN-friendly mainstream news coverage on the sentencing had reported Chan’s actions in the context of the Perak crisis.

Second, we are also concerned about the selective use of lese majesty. In 2008, after the 12th  General Election, there was a crisis in Terengganu when the Sultan of Terengganu, Tuanku Mizan, decided not to reappointed Idris Jusoh to a second term as Menteri Besar, and appointed Ahmad Said instead.

During the three-week crisis, Umno members were extremely disrespectful to the sultan, to the extent of displaying banners referring to Tuanku as “natang”, which is the Terengganu vernacular for “binatang” or animal. Despite the public uproar over this insult, there was no charge of lese majesty brought against the perpetrators of this insult.

Third, the recent amended Evidence Act which includes the proviso for “presumption of fact in publication” under section 114A represents a double jeapordy for online dissenting voices. A person may get maligned through impersonation and suffer the consequences of two overlapping legislations passed recently in parliament.

MCLM would like to state that lese majesty is an outdated crime that has no place in modern Malaysian society. Ours is a democracy derived from the aspirations of participatory politics, and no longer a feudal state of old. Rulers (and political leaders) must earn the respect of the rakyat by the way they conduct themselves and fulfil their responsibilities.

While the court of law had made its judgment (pending appeal), the court of public opinion will not remain silent especially if a donation initiative of RM1 per person to garner 50,000 supporters in solidarity with Chan gathers steam.

The writer is MCLM president


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