Unravelling the twisted tale of sedition charges against Azmi Sharom

Author: Terence Gomez, University of Malaya

On 2 September 2014, Associate Professor Dr Azmi Sharom, a lecturer at the Faculty of Law at the University of Malaya in Kuala Lumpur, was charged under Malaysia’s Sedition Act. Azmi has been a faculty member of this university, the country’s premier tertiary institution, for over two decades. Over the past few years, Azmi has also contributed his views on legal, political, academic and social issues through his regular column in The Star, Malaysia’s leading English newspaper. Recognised for his open and forthright views about major problems in the country, Azmi emerged as a widely respected voice of reason on controversial issues.

Malaysian students hold placards reading 'Abolish Sedition Act' during a protest in solidarity for Malaysian law professor Azmi Sharom, at Malaya University in Kuala Lumpur, 9 September 2014. (Photo: AAP).

Leading up to Azmi’s sedition charge, he had commented on a political crisis that could potentially evolve into a constitutional issue with grave consequences for the conduct of democracy in Malaysia. This political crisis involves the appointment of the Menteri Besar (chief executive) of the government of the state of Selangor. The previous Mentari Besar, Khalid Ibrahim, was forced by his party, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR, or the People’s Justice Party) to stand down from this post. PKR is a member of the tripartite opposition coalition, Pakatan Rakyat (People’s Coalition): the other members are the Parti Islam Se-Malaysia (PAS) and the Democratic Action Party (DAP). The members of this coalition collectively hold 43 of the 56 seats in the Selangor state assembly. The Barisan Nasional (National Front), the coalition that holds power at the federal level — comprising about a dozen parties — has 12 seats in the Selangor assembly, while Khalid is now an independent member.

According to constitutional convention, in a situation where the Menteri Besar no longer commands the support of a majority of the members of the state assembly, he has to step down. The party with the most number of seats can then submit the name of a member of the state assembly to the Sultan of Selangor, the constitutional monarch of the state, who is empowered by the state constitution to appoint the Menteri Besar. A disagreement emerged among the members of the Pakatan Rakyat over who should be the next Menteri Besar of Selangor. In view of this, the Sultan has insisted that each member party of the Pakatan Rakyat submit at least three names to him to consider as Khalid’s replacement. DAP and PAS each have 15 members in the assembly while Keadilan has 13.

The issue that Azmi commented on, for which he is now charged with sedition, was in response to the question as to how the next Menteri Besar of Selangor should be selected. In Azmi’s opinion, the state assembly should be convened and a vote should be taken to indicate who among its members commands the most support. The Selangor state assembly was not in session and Azmi went on to argue that a ‘secret meeting’ cannot be held between individual members of the assembly and the Sultan to decide who should be the next Menteri Besar. He then cited the case of a constitutional crisis in the state of Perak in 2009, when a similar dispute emerged between Malaysia’s two political coalitions over the appointment of the Menteri Besar. The Sultan then made the decision on the appointment of the Menteri Besar — without the state assembly being convened to discuss the matter.

The statement Azmi made was published in the online portal of a local newspaper, The Malay Mail. In this article, Azmi is quoted as saying two things: ‘You don’t want a repeat of that, where a secret meeting took place’ and ‘I think what happened in Perak was legally wrong. The best thing to do is do it as legally and transparently as possible’.

President of the Bar Council of Malaysia Christopher Leong, in his press statement on Azmi’s case, is quoted as saying that Azmi’s ‘comments about the Perak constitutional crisis of 2009 are wholly within the purview of academic freedom and public discourse. This cannot, by any stretch of the imagination, constitute sedition’. Azmi, in response to the charge, has argued that his ‘statements were based on established case laws and democratic principles’ and that he views this charge against him as ‘a blow to academic freedom and the freedom of expression’.

The charge against Azmi is also a serious violation of the 1997 UNESCO Recommendation concerning the Status of Higher Education Teaching Personnel. It violates his rights to academic freedom of expression and prevents him from fulfilling his societal obligations as an academic. If convicted, Azmi faces either a maximum fine of RM5000 (US$1700) or three years in prison, or both.

The Sedition Act 1948 used to charge Azmi is widely viewed as an obsolete relic of British colonial rule to curb dissent. And even Malaysia’s prime minister, Najib Razak, has expressed that the Act should be repealed. It should be.

The irony is that the government has been persistently calling on academics to ensure their research is publicised, to have an impact on society. And, in the public domain, academics have long been criticised for their inadequate contribution to society as public intellectuals. So where have all the public intellectuals gone? With this sedition charge against Azmi, the government is clear on one thing: academic feedback is warranted, but not on matters about politics, specifically those that suggest the need for reforms.

This charge against Azmi will compel academics to rethink their aspirations to be in the forefront of intellectual discourse about ways to solve the problems that ail Malaysian society. The challenge now for academics — and the general public if they value intellectually vibrant tertiary institutions — is to call on the government to stop what amounts to an attempt to intimidate academics into obedience, an act that will only serve to further undermine the international credibility of Malaysian universities.

About 300 academics from across Malaysia have publicly stood by Azmi — a clear commitment to resist attempts to stifle academic freedom and attempts to browbeat university faculty into silence. And, on 10 September 2014, academics and students of the University of Malaya gathered on campus in a show of solidarity with Azmi. This historic gathering, unprecedented in recent history, was jointly planned by the academic and student unions of the university, with about 500 participants. It was heartening to see — from this unfortunate charge against Azmi — that a meaningful dialogue had emerged between the academic and student unions.

This dialogue, now centred on getting the government to review the charge against Azmi, may well be the harbinger of a collective attempt to jointly and actively protect the well-being of academics, students and universities in Malaysia.

Terence Gomez is Professor at the Faculty of Economics & Administration, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur.