Wednesday, September 10, 2014

On academic freedom and the Sedition Act – PSSM (Malaysian Insider)

On academic freedom and the Sedition Act – PSSM

We in Persatuan Sains Sosial Malaysia (PSSM) view with great concern and dismay the ongoing – and widening – use of the Sedition Act 1948 by the current administration.

The recent arrests of law academic, Dr Azmi Sharom, and journalist, Susan Loone, and the sentencing of student activist, Safwan Anang, all under the Act, increasingly creates the perception at home and abroad that the Act is being (mis)used to silence dissenting voices, to curtail legitimate debate and instil a culture of fear and submission.

The Sedition Act is a 66-year-old colonial relic, ostensibly designed by the British to silence local opposition to colonial rule. Sixty-six years on, we believe it is really time for the Act to be relegated to the history books.

Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak evidently is aware of this. On July 11, 2012, Najib declared that his administration would repeal the Sedition Act. He made this declaration while stating that the Act would be replaced by the National Harmony Act. The announcement came as part of Najib's slew of legislative reforms to increase civil liberties initiated during the eve of Malaysia Day in 2011.

On September 5, just last Friday, he was reported as having reiterated that the Sedition Act would go. For us, the fact that Najib had reiterated his earlier declaration strongly implies that, even for the prime minister himself, the Act has outlasted its usefulness.

And just last week, on the day that Azmi was charged in court, Najib outlined the objectives of Malaysian education, one main objective being "to create a future generation that is truly educated and not merely in possession of academic qualifications".

For us, to create a future generation that is truly educated, universities in particular and society in general, need genuine academic freedom and freedom of expression, and the necessary space and healthy environment for the critical exchange of ideas to flourish. But, how can we achieve this lofty objective when a culture of fear lurks in our midst, where dissent is punished, and academic freedom is severely curtailed?

The university, after all, is the place to push the frontiers of knowledge, and academics and students are the agents for the fertilisation of ideas, often competing, often different.

We seriously note that the reputation of Malaysian universities today has eroded and continues to be under scrutiny both nationally and internationally. The on-going arrests targeting dissenting voices can only erode their reputation further.

Hence, instead of punishing the Azmi Sharoms of this world, the thinkers and public intellectuals who challenge our prejudices and our biases, we in PSSM believe that their contributions should be acknowledged. And if there are those who do not agree with their ideas, let them then challenge these ideas with those of their own, if any.

While recognising the importance of law in maintaining stability and order for the country, it is nonetheless crucial that we uphold the rule of law, and not rule by law.

After all, we keep being reminded that we are on track for Vision 2020, that the Najib administration is really serious about the Vision.

If that were true, if the Vision is still to remain our overall political, economic, cultural, social and, yes, moral, compass, we in PSSM believe that Malaysians, especially the government of the day, need to reiterate and remember the nine challenges of the Vision.

As regards the present situation, we really need to remember the following challenges, namely, Challenge 3: Fostering and developing a mature democratic society, and Challenge 5: Establishing a matured liberal and tolerant society.

Just a week or so ago, on 31 August, we celebrated 57 years of Merdeka from colonial rule. In a few days' time, on 16 September, all Malaysians, in turn, will celebrate Malaysia Day.

We in PSSM believe that all Malaysians can have a meaningful celebration of our nationhood with the repeal of the Sedition Act and the upholding of basic freedoms. – September 9, 2014.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.
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