Article contributed by Rajeswari Gunarasa, Officer, and photos by Florence Laway, Senior Administrative Assistant, Bar Council
The Bar Council Criminal Law Committee organised a public forum on Section 124 of the Penal Code and parliamentary democracy. The public forum was held at the Raja Aziz Auditorium, Straits Trading Building at 3:00 pm on 20 May 2016 (Friday).
The forum sought to address the scope of the application of Section 124B of the Penal Code, which demonstrated its wide interpretation by the authorities. Sections 124B to 124J of the Penal Code were tabled in Parliament in 2012 as amendments to the Penal Code.
It had been suggested by the Malaysian Government that the amendments were necessary to deal with violent offences such as assassination of heads of state, coup d’état, armed insurgency or guerrilla warfare, and breach of constitutional provisions, but alarmingly, the use of the legislation has been contrary to these purported objectives.
The chilling effect of its application strikes fear into public consciousness, as the ambit of an “activity detrimental to parliamentary democracy” remains uncertain. A conviction under the wide ambit of Section 124B of the Penal Code (“Section 124B”) may well send a person to jail for a maximum of 20 years.
The forum was attended by Members of the Bar, representatives of non–governmental organisations, members of the public and media, and university students. The panellists — Gobind Singh Deo, Member of the Bar; Dr Azmi Sharom, Associate Professor, Faculty of Law, University of Malaya; and Gurdial Singh Nijar, Consultant, Messrs Sreenevasan — presented their views to the attendees, which was jointly moderated by Salim Bashir Bhaskaran and V Sithambaram, Co–Chairpersons of the Bar Council Criminal Law Committee.
The Vice–President of the Malaysian Bar, George Varughese, delivered the Opening Remarks. He deplored the unjustified use of Section 124B and the apparent eagerness of authorities in enforcing sanctions under this section before any finding of guilt by a court of law. His remarks centred on the broad interpretation of “activity detrimental to parliamentary democracy”, which is opposed to the accepted norms in a democracy.
Gobind Singh Deo, who was first to take to the stage, said that the term “activity detrimental to parliamentary democracy” was never properly defined, and resulted in expansive interpretation and serious abuse. He added that Parliament should refrain from making laws that have far–reaching consequences. He opined that it is the ordinary citizen who will be left to bear the brunt of ambiguous laws. He stressed the imminent possibility of an ordinary citizen facing imprisonment for up to 20 years under this repressive legislation.
Dr Azmi Sharom was next at the podium. In his inimitable style, he made some whimsical remarks about his own attire before delivering serious views on the farcical interpretation used by the authorities in applying Section 124B. He said the vague interpretation of “activity detrimental to parliamentary democracy” would cause difficulty in deciphering what amounted to a threat. “Where students are concerned, if they are charged, they can have disciplinary action taken against them, that is in the Universities and University Colleges Act , so you don’t have to be found guilty to be expelled from your institution; you can merely be charged,” he added.
The final speaker at the forum, Gurdial Singh Nijar, criticised the amendments, saying that they were unconstitutional. He said that although Section 124B may have been intended to protect national security, but if the provision itself were flawed, it would result in an unconstitutional provision.
The forum ended with a question–and–answer session.