TWO years after saying he would abolish a 1948 law, which earned him considerable backlash from many in his own party, Prime Minister Najib Razak backtracked on that promise yesterday.
Watched by his harshest critic Mahathir Mohamad, Datuk Seri Najib announced at the Umno general assembly meeting that he had decided not to repeal the Sedition Act but would bolster it instead.
Critics have accused the government of using the Act to silence political opponents.
A dozen sedition cases have been prosecuted so far this year – the highest number since Mr Najib took office. None of the cases this year involved threats of violence.
When Mr Najib became prime minister in 2009, he pledged to undertake democratic reforms to promote openness.
The Internal Security Act, which allowed for detention without trial, was subsequently abolished.
But his efforts did little to revive Umno’s fortunes in last year’s general election.
His announcement drew intense criticism from civil society and the opposition, including opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim who said the government’s struggles were not related to the provisions under the Act but “governance and corruption and justice”.
Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia chief Phil Robertson said Mr Najib was “doubling down on his bet that a rights abusing strategy is the best way to maintain power” as the Sedition Act allows the government to embark on politically motivated crackdowns.
For Mr Najib, his decision brings him back on solid footing within his ruling party. Some 85 per cent of Umno divisions had urged him to retain the Sedition Act and hardline groups had pushed for the law to be strengthened further to protect the special rights of the Malays.
Yesterday, Umno leaders rallied behind him, with vice-president Zahid Hamidi saying that Mr Najib was showing he “understands the heart of his people”.
Deputy president Muhyiddin Yassin, who had led the charge to protect the Sedition Act, said defending the law “doesn’t mean the transformation has failed”.
“The PM has heard the (people’s) views and this is his decision.
“Even if it doesn’t appear similar to what was said before, this is a new firm stance,” he said at a press conference.
Referring to the proposed anti-terror law, he said “unforeseen circumstances” such as the rise of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which has recruited at least 17 Malaysians, meant that if current laws were insufficient, the government had to strengthen them.
Tun Dr Mahathir, who in August said he no longer supported the man he helped become prime minister five years ago, attended the Umno meeting, which is seen as a sign of support.
Mr Wan Saiful Wan Jan, who heads Ideas, a policy think-tank, said the announcement showed that Mr Najib did not have a firm grip on his party, which was resisting “the direction that its own president wants to take”.
“He has a progressive vision but his party is conservative and regressive.
“This U-turn shows he is not brave enough to make difficult decisions,” he told The Straits Times Singapore.