NOVEMBER 21 — In the past few days, we have witnessed a number of arrests under section 124B of the Penal Code, which prohibits “activities detrimental to parliamentary democracy.” This provision was passed in the House of Representatives on April 17, .2012 and came into force on July 31, 2012.
We know for a fact that these arrests were done in relation to the Bersih rally held on 19.11.2016. It is undisputed that the rally was conducted peacefully. It is also undisputed that the rally was organized to raise awareness on the need for, amongst others, institutional reforms in light of the 1MDB scandal.
The pivotal question is whether the organisation of the rally is an activity “detrimental to parliamentary democracy.
On April 12, 2012, Datuk Seri Mohamed Nazri Abdul Aziz, in introducing the amending bill to the Penal Code on behalf of the Government, stated the following on sections 124B-N:
“Tuan Yang di-Pertua, ramai Ahli-Ahli Yang Berhormat telah membangkit isu ini iaitu berkenaan dengan aktiviti detrimental to Parliamentary Democracy. Cuma di peringkat awal saya ingin menyebut iaitu aktiviti detrimental to Parliamentary Democracy means an activity carry out by a person or a group of person design to overthrow or undermine Parliamentary Democracy by violent or unconstitutional means. Jadi kalau setakat dalam Dewan macam Yang Berhormat dari Kubang Kerian yang pakai tai berberi pada hari ini ya, dia mengutuk kerajaan, dia hentam kerajaan itu biasa sebab ianya bukan mengikut violent or unconstitutional means. Jadi, takkanlah kita nak mengatakan dia telah melakukan satu kesalahan. Ayat yang penting di sini must be, dengan izin, by violent or unconstitutional means. Itu yang penting dan hal yang lain buatlah. Kalau bercakap, menjerit kah, apa kah atau di luar nanti marah saya sebagai Menteri. Macam-macam dia cakap, cakaplah tetapi itu bukan by violent or unconstitutional means.”
This is pivotal, as it sets down the scope of section 124B. Essentially, an activity detrimental to “Parliamentary Democracy” must be “violent” or carried out by “unconstitutional means,” It is also pertinent to note that the minister specifically said that criticising and “bashing” the Government would not be an offence. This was crystalised in section 130A of the Penal Code. The minister then explained the meaning of the term “unconstitutional” (p. 116):
“Jadi kita hendak sebut cara yang unconstitutional ini. Unconstitutional means adalah cara yang tidak berlandaskan dengan perlembagaan pula ialah sekiranya sebagai contoh because you want to know what is meant by unconstitutional means. For example, contohnya seorang telah melantik dirinya sendiri sebagai Perdana Menteri sedangkan menurut perenggan 2(2)(a) perkara 43 Perlembagaan Persekutuan, lantikan tersebut hendaklah dibuat oleh Yang di-Pertuan Agong. Itu dia tadi what is meant by unconstitutional means? Bermakna perkara yang boleh berlaku hanya dibenarkan dalam perlembagaan itu sahaja yang boleh berlaku. Akan tetapi kalau kita melakukan perkara yang tidak dibenarkan oleh constitution, it means unconstitutional lah. “
On the term “violent,” the minister said (p. 120):
“Tuan Yang di-Pertua, cara yang ganas tersebut, tadi kita bercakap tentang unconstitutional dan sekarang ganas. Cara yang ganas tersebut mungkin melalui pelbagai cara yang tidak dibutirkan di sini. Ia mungkin merangkumi pembunuhan atau assassination ketua negara, rampasan kuasa berdarah oleh pihak-pihak yang ingin menubuhkan kerajaan seperti kumpulan Al-Ma’unah ini memang kenalah, pemberontakan bersenjata, perang gerila, guerrilla warfare dengan izin, keganasan atau kerosakan harta benda. Sebagaimana yang kita sedia maklum, kumpulan Al-Ma’unah bermatlamat untuk menggulingkan kerajaan secara kekerasan bersenjata. Bagi tujuan tersebut mereka telah merompak senjata api di Kem Tentera Grik. Semua ini kita rangkumkan dan kita tengok inilah dimaksudkan dengan violent means tetapi apa yang kalau Yang Berhormat mengkritik kerajaan dalam Parlimen, itu bukan violent. Jadi jangan bimbanglah, tidak kena dalam akta ini.”
The examples given by the minister suggests a high standard of violence. The right to assemble peacefully without arms is guaranteed under Article 10 of the Constitution. The Peaceful Assembly Act 2012 does not expressly provide for the need to obtain consent from the police to organise a peaceful rally.
It would be ridiculous to suggest that one needs permission to exercise his or her constitutional rights. Such rights are innate. As the Court of Appeal had noted in Nik Nazmi bin Nik Ahmad v Public Prosecutor  4 MLJ 157:
“These provisions do not per se render unlawful an assembly held without with the prior 10 days notice, or held with a shorter notice period. Thus, that which is fundamentally lawful cannot in the same breath result in an unlawful act on the part of the organiser by reason of an administrative failure or omission. To my mind, such a dichotomy is irrational in the legal sense, and even if it were to be regarded as somehow rational, or does not offend the legal test of conventional unreasonableness, the legislative response is wholly disproportionate to the legislative objectives.”
In essence, the organisation of the rally is not detrimental to parliamentary democracy. To the contrary, it promotes parliamentary democracy. This was confirmed by Suhakam, and is in line with the government’s position.
At the risk of repetition, the minister said, “dia mengutuk kerajaan, dia hentam kerajaan itu biasa sebab ianya bukan mengikut violent or unconstitutional means”, when debating the Bill. All of us have the right to criticize the government. It is part of our right to freedom of expression. As the Court of Appeal had declared in Utusan Melayu (M) Bhd v Dato’ Sri DiRaja Hj Adnan bin Hj Yaakob  5 MLJ 56:
“...the principle clearly emanates from and is already well-entrenched in art 10(1)(a) of the Federal Constitution which guarantees the right to freedom of speech and expression, which right in our judgment encompasses the right of the citizens to discuss the government and those holding public office of the respondent’s position conducting public affairs and administration of the state. On that score, and as public interest dictates, a democratically elected government and its officials should be open to public criticism and that it is advantageous that every responsible citizen should not be in any way fettered in his statements where it concerns the affairs and administration of the government.”
The arrests pertaining to the Bersih rally is a mockery of the rule of law. Not only are they in violation of clear constitutional principles, they are also against the Government’s position. It is incumbent on the Government to keep to its word as stated during the Parliamentary proceedings, though this would be unprecedented.
* Surendra Ananth is an advocate and solicitor of the High Court of Malaya. He is also deputy co-chairperson of the Malaysian Bar Constitutional Law Committee.
** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.