KUALA LUMPUR: An MP is entitled to raise matters of national security and public interest as it affects the people, the High Court heard.
Former Klang MP Charles Santiago said the primary responsibility of elected representatives is to participate in debates surrounding policy issues that are important to the people.
“It is also incumbent on an MP to raise matters of national security and public interest affecting the people,” Santiago said in his witness statement for a lawsuit against him by Zakir Naik.
The controversial Muslim preacher is suing Santiago for publishing allegedly defamatory remarks via a media statement issued on Aug 13, 2019.
The trial is being heard by Justice Akhtar Tahir.
Santiago said the press statement had been made to urge the then Pakatan Harapan (PH) government led by Dr Mahathir Mohamad to consider whether Naik should be allowed to comment on Malaysia’s domestic politics.
In a 2019 speech made in Kota Bharu, Kelantan, Naik is said to have questioned the loyalty of Malaysian Hindus, who, he claimed, preferred to support the prime minister of India rather than Malaysia’s own premier.
In the suit filed in December 2019, Naik also claimed Santiago had said that the arrest of 12 individuals under the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act (Sosma) over alleged links to the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) was because of their criticism of Naik.
He claims Santiago’s remarks, which were published in a news report titled “Criticism of Zakir Naik may have led to LTTE arrests, says MP”, published by FMT on Nov 26, 2019, were motivated by malice and hatred.
Naik said Santiago’s remarks had injured his reputation and caused him to suffer humiliation and ridicule.
Santiago’s defence is that the remarks were fair comment on a matter of public interest.
In his witness statement, the DAP man said he was shocked by the remarks made by Naik in Kota Bharu, as they were highly provocative and capable of stirring racial unrest.
“As an MP at the material time, I issued a statement in order to express my concern and to bring (the matter) to the attention of the Cabinet (for discussion) the following day,” he said.
He said the FMT news report was not published by him nor directed at Naik.
Santiago said Naik, who is a permanent resident here, may not understand the race relations dynamic in Malaysia.
He said Naik’s talk was delivered to a Muslim crowd who were allegedly told that their Hindu neighbours were traitors.
“This is inflammatory in the context of a multiracial society where race relations are fragile and need to be protected,” he added.
Cross-examined by Naik’s counsel Rafie Shafie, the witness admitted he did not verify the truth of media reports chastising Naik after the Kota Bharu speech.
At one point, Akhtar reminded Santiago that he was neither participating in a boxing match nor debating in Parliament, after the former MP refused to give direct “yes” or “no” answers to questions posed by Rafie.
“Either you agree or disagree. The lawyer (for Naik) is here to do his job,” the judge said.
Santiago also denied Shafie’s contention that he was championing the rights of Hindus and that the alleged defamatory remarks were made to get publicity.
Questioned by lawyer Akberdin Abdul Kader, who is also appearing for Naik, Santiago admitted that he did not personally verify with Naik about the contents of his speech before issuing the press statement.
The witness also disagreed with Akberdin that he had a pre-existing hatred and bias against Naik that led him to make wild allegations.
Lawyers SN Fam and Tan Tai Hwa are representing Santiago.
Akhtar instructed parties to file their written submissions by May 3.
He will deliver his decision on May 24.