By Tricia Yeoh. First published in The Sun on 11 December 2014.

Abolishing the Sedition Act would not quite result in madness and mayhem, as some would have us believe, but in the likes of towering Malaysians standing up against supremacist NGOs.

Earlier this week, a group of 25 prominent Malay Muslims broke their silence and issued a strong statement – the strongest I have read in a long time – expressing their dismay at the way Islam is being politicised in our country today. This group was able to demonstrate that there clearly do exist moderate Malaysians able and willing to confront and counter those they have termed to be a “rise of supremacist NGOs accusing dissenting voices of being anti-Islam”.

In April this year, IDEAS hosted an academic who leads the Religious Freedom Project at Georgetown University, whom at a public forum shared time-series data that showed how countries with very high restrictions on religion in fact are also more likely to be socially hostile. He also explained that hate speech should not necessarily be against the law, since this practically silences all forms of speech. Speech would have to be strongly indicative of inciting violence before it is considered criminal, under such a model.

Unfortunately, there are some NGOs today that would prefer to silence speech. Some even incessantly demand that the Sedition Act remains in place, because by removing it, this would result in uncontrolled speech that could create conflict, instability and even topple the government. This stems from the assumption that all Malaysians are incapable of approaching issues in a calm and reasoned manner, and that chaos would ensue should there be a discussion of controversial topics like religion and race.

In fact, the opposite is true. This assumption was clearly challenged by the group of 25, led by Noor Farida Ariffin, former director-general of the Foreign Ministry’s Research, Treaties and International Law Department, who stated in no uncertain terms that “religious bodies seem to be asserting authority beyond their jurisdiction”, that “the issuance of various fatwa violate the Federal Constitution”, and that “the use of the Sedition Act acts as a constant threat to silence anyone with a contrary opinion”.

These are not necessarily new statements, but the fact it is former high-ranking civil servants saying them as opposed to ordinary citizens (whose opinions are easily brushed aside as insignificant) is worthy of attention. Names such as Tan Sri Datuk Abdul Rahim Haji Din, former secretary-general at the Home Ministry, Tan Sri Ahmad Kamil Jaafar, former secretary-general at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Tan Sri Dr Aris Othman, former secretary-general at the Ministry of Finance are top of the list, people who have served within government service at the very highest of positions, commanding the respect of hundreds of civil servants.

Other luminaries like Tan Sri Dr Yahya Awang, core founder of the prestigious National Heart Institute and Datuk Anwar Fazal, former senior regional adviser at the United Nations Development Programme are people who have contributed to society through medical, socioeconomic and developmental means. Six former ambassadors are also part of the statement’s signatories – individuals who had been previously handpicked and wholly entrusted by the government to be Malaysia’s representatives, speaking on behalf of our nation in the four corners of the world.

The group of 25 lists down five priority issues that they feel must be urgently addressed, chief amongst which is “the need to ensure the right of citizens to debate the ways Islam is used as a source of public law and policy in this country… The Islamic laws of Malaysia are drafted by the executive arm of government and enacted in the legislative bodies by human beings”. Quoting from the statement, of course, is insufficient, and one ought to read it in full for its context.

It is clearly time for the Prime Minister, the Department of National Unity and Integration, and Dato’ Seri Jamil Khir Baharom (the minister in charge of religious affairs) to lead the way in promoting constructive dialogue. Brushing things under the carpet is no longer a feasible solution, and perhaps it never should have been in the first place. But doing so, and inviting members of the multifaceted public to participate in this process, means real leadership is required.

Once society loses its ability to engage in reasoned discussion, we lose legitimacy as a democratic nation. In fact, when reason goes, there is little else to even consider, since we would lose the final frontier of what it means to be human.

This is why it is important for Malaysians to trust in each other enough to believe that open, rational space will not bring about animosity or tension, but instead a flourishing of friendships. Sure, there may be times where bringing people together may ignite fiery, passionate debates, but as long as this is conducted in a safe environment, this is far superior to the alternative: cold, hard, clamped-upon silence, signalling the death of democracy.

And it is through these debates that in fact, more and more Malaysians will be brought into the fold, to speak, listen, understand for themselves, relying on reason and rationale to draw their own conclusions. It is open dialogue and free speech as a first step that is sorely needed, and never more critically so than right now. It is almost certain that more such groups would then emerge, confidently showing that they, too, stand for a moderate Malaysia.

Tricia Yeoh is the Chief Operating Officer of IDEAS

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