Dennis Ignatius: Quick to act against citizens; slow to act against politicians

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All the laws are useless when leaders themselves are too cowardly to stand up for what is right.

A growing number of citizens have found themselves in hot water for running afoul of laws like the Sedition Act, the Penal Code and the Communications and Multimedia Act. Mostly, it involves issues related to race, religion and royalty (the 3Rs) – insulting the monarchy, hurting the religious feelings of others, causing disharmony on the grounds of religion, intentional insult with intent to provoke a break of the peace, etc.

Action has been generally swift. Within days some were arrested, charged and jailed.

Not content with existing legislation, the government is now in the process of further tightening a number of different laws including the Police Act and the Sedition Act. They argue that it is necessary to preserve the peace and maintain harmony in our multicultural society and protect national security.

Civil society groups – Lawyers for Liberty and Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram) among them – have strongly opposed these moves which they see as retrogressive and counter to Pakatan Harapan’s promise to abolish repressive, anti-democratic legislation. Suaram recently noted that the number of arrests and detentions under the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012 (Sosma) last year was the highest in the last five years, Suaram.

But if you look at recent events, it is clear that the greatest danger to peace and security is not the careless and often unthinking spur-of-the-moment comments of disgruntled individuals but the carefully orchestrated exploitation of race, religion and royalty by the politicians themselves.

Just look at the way UMNO Youth leader Akmal Saleh – with the full backing of the UMNO leadership no less – has exploited the KK Mart issue to inflame religious passions and provoke deep angst amongst the people regardless of the consequences. His actions have without doubt posed one of the greatest threats to peace and harmony in Malaysia in decades.

And then there’s the infamous statement by PAS President Abdul Hadi Awang which so incurred the displeasure of the Sultan of Selangor that His Majesty took the unusual step of publicly reprimanding the PAS president. According to the Sultan’s private secretary, Hadi’s statement “is not only confusing but could create uneasiness which could ultimately lead to disunity among Muslims, especially among the Malays in this country.”

And yet, both Akmal and Hadi seem immune from prosecution. While others have been charged and jailed for far less, an apology letter from Hadi was sufficient to close the case. In Akmal’s case, we have the bizarre spectacle of Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim calling for calm but refusing to condemn the provocative behaviour of Akmal. And you have UMNO President Zahid Hamidi calling for calm while endorsing Akmal’s offensive and incendiary behaviour. In the meantime, Akmal continues to provoke, instigate and inflame emotions unchecked.

It sends the signal that politicians like Akmal and Hadi can get away with anything while ordinary citizens will be penalised for the slightest infringement or careless posting. Such an impression – and it is already quickly gaining credibility – that the law is being unevenly applied is not something that any government should take lightly. It breeds distrust of the government and of politicians.

If the authorities are going to take action against those who endanger racial or religious harmony or insult the rulers, it ought to be far tougher on politicians than on ordinary citizens. After all, the damage that a single social media post by a disgruntled citizen can inflict is limited; the damage done by highly influential agents provocateurs like Akmal is immense and long lasting.

And finally, instead of constantly seeking to diminish our freedoms via anti-democratic legislation, the prime minister and others in cabinet should set a better example by acting decisively whenever issues that could disrupt peace and harmony emerge. All the laws are useless when leaders themselves are too cowardly to stand up for what is right. – Dennis Ignatius