September 2, 2014
In Defense of University of Malaya Law Professor Azmi Sharom
by Din Merican
The Malaysian Insider, Malaysiakini, and other news portals have reported that University of Malaya Law Professor Azmi Sharom will be charged with sedition later today ( September 2) over his remarks on the Selangor Menteri Besar crisis. He joins the ranks of a number of Opposition politicians – PKR Vice-President Rafizi Ramli, Padang Serai MP and Lawyer for Anwar Ibrahim, N. Surendran (PKR), Shah Alam MP and PAS central committee member Khalid Samad, and Seri Delima assemblyman R.S.N. Rayer (DAP) –who have been charged under the Sedition Act, 1948.
Seputeh MP Teresa Kok (DAP) and Batu MP Tian Chua (PKR) are also facing trial for sedition, while former Perak MB and Changkat Jering assemblyman Nizar Jamaluddin (PAS) was charged with criminal defamation for a statement he had allegedly made two years ago. But Professor Sharom is the first academic and civil society activist to be hauled up before our courts on charges of sedition. That is shocking news to me since I know Professor Sharom well as a man of integrity and reason. In fact, from time to time I have hosted his articles, which are also carried in his column in The Star. These are well written, lucid, constructive, positive and responsible. He is critical but never seditious since he knows his limits.
Why is Prime Minister Najib resorting to the use of The Sedition Act to silence critics of his government? A confident government is always prepared to engage its citizenry. Could he be responding to Tun Dr. Mahathir’s criticisms of his leadership and policies? And that in order to show that he is actually not a weak leader, he has resorted to strong arm tactics to prevent Malaysians from speaking up about politics, social policy and other matters. Given his wide experience in government and politics, he should know that efforts to silence mounting critical voices will be counterproductive. The best option is to communicate more effectively with civil society, address its concerns and take action. Silence is not golden when it comes public dissent.
Taking on a popular academic like Professor Sharom is, therefore, Najib’s miscalculated move. It will not silence his critics. Repression is not the answer. I read Amartya Sen’s The Argumentative Indian, a book of essays on Indian history, culture and identity, some years ago (in 2002 to be exact). It contains useful pointers about the value of dissent and critical discourse. In the context of what is happening in our country where dissent is being suppressed, I wish to quote this brilliant Nobel Prize Laureate in Economics, who said in the Preface to his book :
“Discussions and arguments are critically important for democracy and public reasoning. They are central to the practice of secularism and for even-handed treatment of adherents of different religious faith (including those who have no religious beliefs). Going beyond these basic structural priorities, the argumentative tradition, if used with deliberation and commitment, can also be extremely important in resisting social inequalities and in removing poverty and deprivation. Voice is a crucial component of the pursuit of social justice.
…the critical voice is the traditional ally of the aggrieved,and participation in arguments is a general opportunity, not a particularly specialized skill…”
Professor Sharom is that critical voice in our civil society. He is indeed among a rare breed of individuals with a courage of conviction. He is not afraid to speak his mind. Maybe because of this priceless quality, he is now being singled out for prosecution. But I am confident that our courts will see it fit to dismiss the charge of sedition against him. Let him be free to get on with his duty, which is to educate our young generation on the importance of the Rule of Law, critical discourse, and human justice.