KUALA LUMPUR – Privileges and immunities enjoyed by members of the royalty vying for or holding public positions could discourage open discussions about their performance, according to a lawyer.

Fahri Azzat, who was commenting on Johor crown prince Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim contesting the Football Association of Malaysia (FAM) presidency against Kelantan Football Association (KAFA) adviser Tan Sri Annuar Musa, said it would be difficult for comments to be made against public officials when they have protections unique to their position as royalty.

“For example, if TMJ is FAM president and FAM’s performance during his tenure is poor, criticism about FAM can be easily, if not readily, inferred as being against TMJ. Any criticism against royalty and matters affiliated to them is potentially seditious,” Fahri told Malay Mail Online, referring to the Johor crown prince using the acronym for the position in Malay.

“That’s assuming there is criticism at all because we all know how there is a prevailing feudalistic mindset in influential circles in Malaysia. So this raises another issue: who will dare to give a different or contradicting opinion if royalty has already given their opinion.

“In either case, there is potentially a chilling effect on full, frank discussions about what to do about football in Malaysia or how FAM is run,” the lawyer added. “For me, royalty should not be in any public position, politics or business by virtue of their position, role and stipend”.

Tunku Ismail and Annuar are in a straight fight for the top FAM post in the election during the association’s Congress on March 25, as Youth and Sports Minister Khairy Jamaluddin and former Home Ministry secretary-general Tan Sri Aseh Che Mat did not confirm their candidacy.

Several people have been arrested over the past months for posting offensive remarks about Tunku Ismail on social media, with most of them investigated under Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 that prohibits the “improper” use of network facilities.

Lawyer New Sin Yew said he did not believe that criticising members of the royal family for their performance in a public post would be deemed seditious, however,citing Section 3(2)(a) of the Sedition Act 1948 that states that a remark shall not be deemed seditious if it has a tendency to show that “any Ruler has been misled or mistaken in any of his measures”.

“Pointing out that the Ruler has made a mistake or has been misled would not be seditious,” New told Malay Mail Online.

“How do we differentiate? We have to look at the context and the language used, and based on the recent Court of Appeal decision, we have to look at the intention as well,” he added, referring to the appellate court’s decision in Mat Shuhaimi Shafiei’s case last November that held as unconstitutional a provision in the Sedition Act saying that the accused’s intention is “irrelevant”.

New also said it was unlikely, in any event, that members of the royal family other than Sultans would fall under the definition of “Ruler” under the Sedition Act, citing the Interpretation Acts 1948 and 1967.

According to Section 66 of the Interpretation Acts, the definition of “Ruler”, in the case of states other than Negri Sembilan, “includes any person who in accordance with the Constitution of that State exercises the functions of Ruler”.

Centre for A Better Tomorrow (Cenbet) co-president Gan Ping Sieu said there was nothing wrong with having royalty lead any sports body if they ran it professionally.

“With royal family members helming a sports body, he or she will inevitably be subject to criticism, rightly or wrongly, that comes with the privilege of holding the post,” Gan told Malay Mail Online.

“In the context of FAM, questioning the suitability or credentials of any contender cannot be seditious. Those who vote should decide what is best for FAM,” added the head of the pro-moderation non-governmental organisation.

– Malay Mail