On Pointe - The passport

LAST week, many Malaysians woke up to headlines warning of travel bans if one was to ridicule the government. News portals around the world picked it up and in an instant the government ridiculed its own self.

Does the Passports Act 1966 support this warning? I am not a lawyer but after reading the Act, there does not seem to be any suggestion that travel bans can be enforced for such reasons as "ridiculing the government". If you look at the last page of your passport it does say that the passport " ... is the property of the Government of Malaysia and may be withdrawn at any time" .

But it also states in the inside cover that "This is to request and require in the Name of His Majesty the Yang di-Pertuan Agong of Malaysia, all whom it may concern to allow the bearer of this passport to pass freely without let or hindrance, and to afford the bearer such assistance and protection as may be necessary".

If we take this declaration at face value, technically, one should be allowed to pass freely. So why is it that in Malaysia, some citizens are not allowed to "pass freely" within the country itself, let alone allowed to leave the country?

The Malaysian Bar Council issued a clear strong statement voicing concern over the lack of legal basis for banning Malaysians from travelling within the country and abroad for ridiculing the government. Further stating that "There is no general discretionary power to restrict a citizen's right to travel in and out of Malaysia. Unrestrained discretion in the hands of the Government is a myth."

So when politicians confidently state otherwise, the underlying message is concerning and raises multiple questions.

The first is, how well versed are our politicians about the law? The lack of basic legal knowledge and its parameters of what is allowed and what is not is blatantly obvious. Politicians seem to be shooting off showing their lack of understanding, then blaming the press for misquotes instead of recanting and apologising. What is disheartening is that these politicians do not care to understand the basic rights of citizens or the Malaysian Constitution. It is worrying that our lawmakers do not actually know the law.

Second, why are we rapidly regressing into an authoritarian state? One analyst likened the politician's warning to something that happens in countries like North Korea. It may sound like a drastic comparison but imagine buying a plane ticket, packing your bags, heading to the airport and being told by the immigration you are not allowed to leave the country, with no concrete reason given as to why you are barred from leaving Malaysia.

A three-year travel ban is serious especially since there is no real definition to the terms "discredit" or "ridicule". And with the Sedition Act used to even monitor Facebook and Twitter posts, imagine how wide this net is cast. Such loose definitions reek of an abuse of power, lack of accountability and transparency.

How unrecognisable has the country become? Every country has a government but democracies have oppositions and dissent, and sometimes the opposition wins. This is what a democratic constitution espouses. If you look at the list of those who have been banned in recent times, it is mainly people with opposing political views, not the true criminals. Actions such as these are akin to that of totalitarian states and have no place in a country like Malaysia that on paper defines its governing system as democratic.

Third, such statements are not only threatening, they are used to intimidate and border on harassment, limiting critical thought. It creates a situation of self-censoring but also dumbs down society. Healthy debate shows a mature society and by extension a government that goes beyond the party but works for the good of the country. Such bullying statements and action give rise to an unhealthy climate of fear, something that we are sadly all too familiar with.

The fact is when a politician is given the freedom to violate such legal structures in place and freely given the space to do so, our sedentary response is interpreted as approval and agreement. Yes, in the case of bankruptcy and tax defaults, then there are legal provisions to enforce a travel ban. But to arrogantly state that dissent is not allowed, means that most of the country's citizens should then serve a three-year ban and that includes the politicians who on a daily basis ridicule the country.

Comments: letters@thesundaily.com