Contributed by Joane Sharmila, Editor and Chin Oy Sim, Deputy CEO, and photos by Mohamad Fazli b Rosman and Jul Indra Tofan b Jahrul, Administrative Assistants, Bar Council
The Malaysian Bar convened an Extraordinary General Meeting (“EGM”) on 19 Sept 2014 to condemn the use and continued use of the Sedition Act 1948.
At that EGM, the Bar resoundingly resolved to hold a peaceful assembly to protest the recent spate of arrests, charges and investigations under the Sedition Act 1948 (“Act”), in its “Resolution against the Sedition Act, other laws and actions taken which stifle speech and expression, and matters in connection therewith”.
The Bar Council determined that the Walk for Peace and Freedom 2014 (“Walk”) was to take place at 10:30 am on 16 Oct 2014. The Bar Council Secretariat was abuzz with activity immediately after the Bar’s recent biennial International Malaysia Law Conference 2014 held from 24 to 26 Sept 2014, as the Bar Council’s planning team as well as the Secretariat staff made extensive preparations for the Walk.
On the momentous day, there was an air of palpable excitement as Secretariat staff, volunteer marshals (who comprised Members of the Bar), representatives of civil society, and above all, a throng of lawyers in their customary chamber attire, began gathering and mingling at the Padang Merbok car park off Jalan Parlimen in Kuala Lumpur from as early as 9:30 am.
Secretariat staff enthusiastically handed out bottles of water, and caps, badges, placards and banners produced for the Walk, which proclaimed the taglines “#MansuhAktaHasutan” and “#RepealSeditionAct” and spotlighted the Walk.
At approximately 10:40 am, Christopher Leong, President of the Malaysian Bar, took to the stage with words of inspiration, rousing and reminding the crowd about the purpose of the Walk, and its significance both today and for future generations. He thanked the participants for having turned up in significant numbers to voice their opposition against the Act and to support the Bar’s initiative in organising the Walk.
Syahredzan Johan, Chairperson of the National Young Lawyers Committee and organiser of the Bar’s #Mansuh Akta Hasutan campaign, and Firdaus Husni, Chairperson of the Constitutional Law Committee, in their individual addresses, delineated how the archaic Act, which was put in place during colonial times, and which has served to stifle the growth of democracy in the country, should have been removed from the laws of the nation many decades ago.
Steven Thiru, Vice–President of the Malaysian Bar, next reminded the crowd how Malaysians are now living in a climate of fear due to the Act. Ravinder Singh Dhalliwal, the Kuala Lumpur Bar’s Representative to the Bar Council, further fired up the crowd with his thundering voice, repeatedly asking, “If there is something wrong with Malaysian law, who do you look for?!” and the crowd consistently and heartily replied, “Malaysian Bar!”
After impassioned speeches from Richard Wee Thiam Seng, Secretary of the Malaysian Bar, Karen Cheah Yee Lynn, Treasurer of the Malaysian Bar, and Andrew Khoo Chin Hock, Co–Chairperson of the Human Rights Committee, Christopher Leong once again took to the stage to inspire the crowd one last time by leading in a recitation of the preamble and tenets of Rukunegara.
By 11:15 am, the crowd of lawyers had swelled to approximately 1,000 individuals, with many non–lawyers in plain clothes also visible in the assembly.
The historic moment that everyone had been looking forward to, began to unfold at 11:35 am. The frontliners — Christopher Leong, Steven Thiru, Richard Wee Thiam Seng, Karen Cheah Yee Lynn, Syahredzan Johan, Andrew Khoo, and Honey Tan — led the approximately 2,000–strong crowd consisting of lawyers, civil society representatives including members of the Orang Asli community, writers and artistes against the Act, and likely some members of the public as well, towards the Malaysian Parliament. Ravinder Singh Dhalliwal and Avinder Singh marched alongside as the proud banner bearers.
Spotted in the procession were Adam Adli, student activist; Haris Ibrahim, activist; Kee Thuan Chye, actor and dramatist; and even activist “Auntie Bersih”!
Observers from various foreign bar associations and the diplomatic corps in Malaysia1 stood apart from the main gathering, visible in their bright blue vests.
Throughout the speeches and Walk, there were the continuous mantras of “Mansuh, Mansuh, Akta Hasutan!”, and “Hidup, Hidup, Rakyat Malaysia!” being chanted. A segment of the crowd, including Syahredzan Johan, sang patriotic songs to continue to drum up the spirits of the crowd. Banners and placards calling for the repeal of the Act were present throughout, and as the participants walked towards Parliament, they drew cheers and honks of support from drivers moving along the route.
The slow but steady march to the Parliament was facilitated by the presence of the police and the Bar Council–appointed marshals, who ensured the crowd kept to the pavements, and the efforts of traffic police who helped control the traffic flow and ensure the safety of the participants.
At 11:55 am, the leaders spearheading the Walk reached the designated spot, a few hundred metres before the Parliament building. Ten representatives from the Malaysian Bar — including the seven previously mentioned frontliners — were allowed through the police barricade to deliver the Bar’s “Open Memorandum to the Prime Minister: Towards a Peaceful, United and Harmonious Malaysia”.
While waiting for the representatives, the participants braved the heat, keeping the cheery atmosphere alive by snapping photos, singing the national anthem, and even chanting “Merdeka!”
At 1:00 pm, the representatives finally returned to cheers from the crowd, as Christopher Leong proudly announced that the goal of the Walk had been achieved, and that the Memorandum had been submitted to Dato’ Mah Siew Keong, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, who accepted the Memorandum on behalf of the Prime Minister. The President also informed that Dato’ Mah Siew Keong had assured the Bar that the suggestions put forward in the Memorandum would be considered.
Christopher Leong acknowledged the professionalism of the Royal Malaysia Police, and thanked them for a fantastic job.
Syahredzan Johan promised that the Walk was just the beginning of the campaign to repeal the Act, and that the fight against the Act would not end until the Act is finally abolished!
With those closing remarks, the crowd dispersed after what had been an eventful and gratifying morning of involvement in support of the rule of law and human rights.
In the run–up to the Walk for Peace and Freedom, the Malaysian Bar received an unprecedented number of statements of support, particularly from foreign bar associations and law societies, as listed below.
Statements of support from foreign bar associations and law societies
(1) American Bar Association (statement dated 15 Oct 2014)(2) Australian Bar Association (press release dated 27 Oct 2014)(3) Bar Association of India (press release dated 15 Oct 2014)(4) Bar Association of Sri Lanka (press release dated 13 Oct 2014)(5) Commonwealth Lawyers Association (press release dated 10 Oct 2014, and letter to the Prime Minister of Malaysia dated 13 Oct 2014)(6) German Federal Bar (letter to the Prime Minister of Malaysia dated 14 Oct 2014)(7) International Commission of Jurists (press release dated 15 Oct 2014)(8) Korean Bar Association (press release dated 13 Oct 2014)(9) LAWASIA (press release dated 10 Oct 2014)(10) Law Council of Australia (press release dated 15 Oct 2014)(11) Law Society of England and Wales (press release dated 10 Oct 2014)(12) Law Society of South Africa (press release dated 16 Oct 2014)(13) Nepal Bar Association (press release dated 10 Oct 2014)(14) New Zealand Law Society (press release dated 15 Oct 2014)(15) Taiwan Bar Association (press release dated 18 Oct 2014)(16) Union Internationale des Avocats (press release dated 15 Oct 2014)(17) Union of Turkish Bar Associations (letter to the Prime Minister of Malaysia dated 5 Nov 2014)
Statements of support from other organisations
(18) Organisers of the Regional Conference on Media and Internet Freedom (press release dated 16 Oct 2014)(19) PROHAM (press release dated 14 Oct 2014)
1 The observers included representatives from Commonwealth Lawyers Association, LAWASIA, Law Council of Australia, Law Society of England and Wales, Union Internationale des Avocats, International Commission of Jurists, British High Commission, Delegation of the European Union, Embassy of Norway, Embassy of the USA and High Commission of Canada.