Intention behind the law misunderstood

There are limits to freedom, and the Constitution allows for these. However, those limits are subject to certain over-arching protective principles.

By Azmi Sharom (The Star)

SOME things are impossible to understand. For example, how on God’s sweet earth could Tottenham Hotspur in their last game against Manchester United go from leading 2-0 at half time to losing 2-5 at full time?

And this is not the first time we’ve done it. A few years ago, we were leading 3-0 at half time only to lose 3-5.

My Liverpool-supporting friends were flabbergasted as Spurs, by their total and complete implosion, have probably destroyed Liverpool’s last hope of winning the Premier League this season.

They tried to make sense of it, but we long-suffering Spurs men and women know that some things just can’t be understood.

But there are some things which must be understood. It is in fact imperative that we understand them. And these pertain to things in our country. Yet, sadly, it appears that some of us can’t.

I am referring here to the Sedition Act and the Police Act. Both, in my opinion, have been totally abused in the last few weeks because those with the power to use them simply did not understand them.

Allow me to explain. The Sedition Act is a remnant of the bad old British days. The English introduced the law to quash dissent among the people who were opposing the Malayan Union, namely the Malayan left.

One would have thought that we would have got rid of this law, seeing as how its formation was for the purpose of oppressing some of the heroes of our independence. But, strangely, we have kept it.

Now, as appalling as this law is, it is not the blunderbuss that the Internal Security Act is. You don’t have the discretion to use the Sedition Act willy-nilly like you can the ISA.

You can’t just arrest someone for sedition for no good reason – for example, for their outlandish hairstyle or their choice of clothes.

The Sedition Act is really meant for those who advocate the unlawful destruction of a government.

If one were to read the Act, it looks pretty broad; on the surface, it looks as if you can’t at all criticise the monarchy or the government.

But if you were to read carefully, you will see that if the King or the Sultans were mistaken in their actions, or if you are advocating a lawful change of government, then it is perfectly OK to criticise them.

This being the case, I could not see any reason whatsoever for Coalition for Free and Fair Elections (Bersih) activist Wong Chin Huat to be arrested for sedition last week.

All he did was advocate the wearing of black in order to peaceably protest what was considered by many to be a poor state of affairs in the Perak legislature. Something which was perfectly within his rights and the rights of everyone in this country – to peaceably express themselves.

Another law which appears to be misunderstood by the powerful is the Police Act. It was used on May 7 against scores of people for “illegal assembly”. Most were in Ipoh, dressed in black, and some were in Kuala Lumpur gathering to show their support for Wong, who was being held in remand.

The Police Act also looks a bit crazy. Any gathering of more than two people can be deemed an illegal assembly. It, therefore, looks as though the police can do anything they want.

They can charge into a coffeeshop and haul two pals and me away because we constitute an illegal gathering. It appears unbelievable, does it not?

What is misunderstood, however, is that the Police Act is not meant to be used by the police as though it were their personal toy.

Any invocation of it has to be done within the context of the Federal Constitution.

In fact, the use of any law in the country has to be done within the context of the Constitution. And the Constitution does say that we have the freedom to assemble.

Sure, there are limits to that freedom, and the Constitution allows for these. However those limits have limits, too. You can only stop an assembly if it is armed, violent, and a threat to national security and public order.

The people in Ipoh were not armed. They were there merely to express their disappointment at how things were turning out in Perak.

The people burning candles outside the Brickfields police station to show solidarity with Wong were not in any way being a threat to national security.

In this light, the very most the police could do was to control the crowd to make sure that order was maintained. There was absolutely no need to trample on the citizens’ Constitutional rights. Their arrests, in my view, were uncalled for and totally against the Constitution.

It’s perfectly all right to not understand how a football team can play so beautifully for 45 minutes and then crumble for the next 45. I’ve lived in such a state of befuddlement for the past 30 years of supporting the boys from North London.

However, it is not acceptable to misunderstand that our laws are subject to certain over-arching protective principles.

The Sedition Act is to be used for those advocating the unlawful overturning of governments and institutions. The Police Act is not to be used to indiscriminately take away our civil liberties. If these things are not understood, then we have no right to call ourselves a democracy.