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July 11, 2012 4:59 pm
Malaysia is set to repeal a sedition law in place since British colonial times as the Najib Razak, prime minister, attempts to burnish his administration’s reformist credentials before a landmark general election expected within months.
The poll, which will be the closest fought for decades, comes as Malaysia is in the midst of an economic modernisation drive aimed at propelling the country of 28m out of a “middle income” trap.
Mr Najib’s ruling coalition, dominated by the United Malays National Organisation, faces a tough fight with an opposition coalition led by Anwar Ibrahim, acquitted early this year on a second sodomy charge.
The plan to repeal the sedition act is highly symbolic as it has been used as a tool to quell opposition activity, as well as to protect the majority Malay population as part of the country’s policy of ethnic preference for Malays, or “bumiputeras”.
The Malay vote will be critical for both government and opposition in any election.
In a speech to the attorney-general’s chambers on Wednesday, Mr Najib said the 1948 sedition act represented “a bygone era in our country”. It would be repealed and replaced with a “national harmony act”.
“The new act will safeguard the right to freedom of speech while protecting national unity by preventing the incitement of religious or ethnic hatred,” Mr Najib said.
The government said the announcement followed “groundbreaking” reforms which together represented “the biggest shake-up of the Malaysian political system since independence from Britain” in 1957.
Since Mr Najib came to power in 2009 he has introduced a printing presses and publications bill, which removes the requirement for newspapers and printed publications to renew their licence to print annually.
This year the Internal Security Act was replaced with a “security offences” law, which abolishes detention without trial. Parliament has passed a “Peaceful Assembly Act” enshrining freedom of public assembly, although it still limits where and how people can hold demonstrations.
Wong Chen, a lawyer in the Parti Keadilan Rakyat, Mr Anwar’s party, told the Financial Times: “It appears to be quite significant but we have to see what they replace it with.”
Critics of the Peaceful Assembly Act say that while they welcome the abolition of the draconian Internal Security Act, different restrictions on freedom of assembly have been introduced in the new act.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of the Asia division at Human Rights Watch, welcomed Mr Najib’s announcement. However, he said: “I would want to wait and see what actually gets put into the new [national harmony] law. What you have continually with this whole reform programme in Malaysia is a bit of ‘bait and switch’.”
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