Malaysian writer Kean Wong was arrested by the police on October 16 while applying for a passport renewal more than three years after a book he edited was banned by authorities for allegedly disrespecting the country’s coat of arms.
The book, “Rebirth: Reformasi, Resistance And Hope in New Malaysia” was banned in July 2020 after its cover was deemed insulting and seditious by supporters of the former ruling party, Barisan Nasional (BN). The book highlighted corruption and governance issues linked to the ruling party that dominated the country’s politics until it was dislodged from power in 2018.
The book cover features images of a young woman, a crocodile, and two tigers. It is based on an artwork that has been shown in art galleries since 2014.
Lawyers for Liberty said in 2020 that the ban had no basis since the law “does not prohibit any artistic rendition inspired from the nation’s coat of arms such as the one used on the cover of the book, which no sane person would mistake for the country’s actual coat of arms.” It added that “this manufactured controversy is an obvious attempt to strong-arm citizens from exercising their freedom of speech.”
Several writers who contributed to the book were summoned by the police. Kean Wong, a permanent resident of Australia, was not in the country at that time.
Aside from editing the book, Wong has contributed articles to the BBC, The Economist, and ABC. He was also a co-founder of the Malaysian Center for Independent Journalism.
In response to Wong's arrest, Amnesty International stated on X (formerly Twitter):
We condemn the arrest of & investigation into Kean Wong, editor of the book “Rebirth: Reformasi, Resistance, And Hope in New Malaysia”. The Malaysian gov't must cease the harassment, and stop crushing #FreedomOfExpression #AbolishTheSeditionAct
— Amnesty International Malaysia (@AmnestyMy) October 16, 2023
News of his arrest was confirmed by police officials who said that he is being investigated under the Sedition Act 1948, Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 and the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998. The police released him after one day and warned the public not to jeopardize the ongoing probe and to refrain from engaging in speculation.
Gerak Budaya, the publisher of the banned book, described the arrest as “uncalled for and a violation of basic human rights.” Malaysia and Singapore Society of Australia said it “is distressed by Kean's detention and wishes its deepest concern for the well-being of our colleague.” It urged authorities “to drop the charges and take swift action to close this matter so that Kean is not detained again in future.”
PEN Malaysia, a group of writers, decried the sedition charge:
PEN Malaysia views the arrest of any writer being investigated for sedition as a threat to literature and the freedom of expression in Malaysia. We have so many censorship laws, as if it's a Malaysian record to be proud of.
Sevan Doraisamy, executive director of human rights watchdog Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram) spoke out against the arrest and its dire implications on free speech.
Through the re-enactment of draconian tactics of arrest and detention, it is worryingly clear that we have before us a government with a precarious commitment to upholding our fundamental freedom of expression and a police force with concerningly misplaced priorities when these resources could have been better used to deter serious crimes that jeopardise public safety.
Equally important, the problematic environment in which critical debate on issues of public interest and artistic expression continues to be criminalised and censored remains intact, especially because draconian laws such as the Sedition Act remain in place.
Around 22 civil society groups and 40 community leaders signed a statement calling for the review and repeal of the draconian laws used to charge Kean Wong.
Kean Wong’s arrest, after three years from the time the book was banned, demonstrates the State’s concerted effort to suppress the public’s ability to both inform and to speak out without fear of censorship.
The Sedition Act and the Printing Presses and Publications Act are archaic legislations with broad provisions, often arbitrarily used as a weapon to silence any critic. In the interim, we request that a moratorium be imposed, pending repeal or amendment of such legislations.
William de Cruz, the founding president of Global Bersih and a Bersih Sydney volunteer, wrote about the silence of authorities amid the continuing use of repressive laws to harass citizens.
A deeply worrying picture of uncontrolled authoritarianism is clearly emerging, and Malaysians are waiting for their elected representatives and the central government to deliver leadership, direction and decisive action on these matters before things spiral out of control.
In the case of Wong and the book he has edited, one glaring question emerges: was the controversy sparked and fuelled by political parties and alliances that did not want a change of government?
Bersih means “clean” in Bahasa. It also refers to the anti-corruption movement that led the protests against the former ruling party. The new government had previously pledged to review laws like the Sedition Act and other measures that are often used and weaponized to target legitimate criticism.