The Law Society has pledged its support to the Malaysian Bar in abolishing a British colonial-era law prohibiting discourse with ‘seditious tendency’.

The Sedition Act has been used in Malaysia this year to investigate, charge and prosecute more than 20 people, including lawyers and law professors, for expressing dissenting views, a meeting at Chancery Lane heard yesterday. 

Explaining the impact of the ‘extremely objectionable and abhorrent’ act, Malaysian Bar president Christopher Leong (pictured) said of those detained: ‘These people are not terrorist types. They are not out there to overthrow government by illegal means. 

‘These are people who are expressing their thoughts about what the important issues for Malaysia are and how they ought to be addressed.’

Leong, who is on a three-day visit to London, said that the support of international colleagues had helped prevent violence by ‘extremist elements’ against lawyers standing up for constitutional rights. 

Prior to the 2011 repeal of the Internal Security Act (ISA), which allowed indefinite detention without trial, the Sedition Act was used infrequently. Nine months after the ISA was repealed as part of a programme of reforms by prime minister Najib Razak, he announced a promise to repeal the Sedition Act.

‘The irony of that,’ said Leong, was ‘despite that promise, we have seen unprecedented use of the sedition laws earlier this year.’

Last month the bar took part in a ‘walk for peace and freedom’ as part of its campaign to repeal the act. It was only the fourth time in the bar’s history that lawyers have felt the need to protest on the streets, Leong said. 

‘It was time that lawyers came out into the public sphere, to be physically seen and heard with our feet planted on the pavement,’ Leong said.

The bar’s open memorandum ‘towards a peaceful, united and harmonious Malaysia’ was accepted by a cabinet minister and has been tabled for discussion.

‘This government, under this prime minister, is right-thinking with respect to decisions. The problem that [they] face is that there are elements within [the prime minister’s] own political party who are not supportive of his transformation programme,’ he added.

‘I want to make it clear that the position of the Malaysian Bar with respect to the Sedition Act and our walk for peace and freedom was in support of the prime minister’s thinking and pledge to do away with the Sedition Act.’

The bar received statements expressing support from 16 law associations in other jurisdictions, including the Law Society of England and Wales.

‘That made a huge difference,’ said Leong, ‘because prior to that day there was concern on our part for security. We were concerned that there were going to be counter protests by extremist elements, and the extremist elements would resort to violence.

‘The support that we got from the Law Society and other organisations showed the authorities that this was not just a Malaysia issue, this was an international issue. There was interest from others who uphold the rule of law and they’ll be watching whether Malaysian authorities would uphold the rule of law.’

Law Society vice-president Jonathan Smithers said: ‘We consider it’s always worthwhile showing support for our colleagues around the world. We want to let their national authorities know that international eyes are watching.

‘And that’s why we are more than willing to express our support for the Malaysian Bar in their endeavour to address the concerns of the Malaysian legal profession about the use of the Sedition Act and the rule of law in Malaysia.’