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Malaysia: Attempts to ban memoir reveals limits of free expression

Thursday 4 March 2021 - 12:00am


Tommy Thomas

PEN International has received reports that the recent publication of a former attorney general’s memoir in Malaysia has resulted in efforts by its critics to have it banned and the filing of several punitive police reports against its author. This concerning development highlights the limited space for free speech in Malaysia and raises questions surrounding the government’s willingness to uphold the right to freedom of expression.

Malaysia’s former Attorney General Tommy Thomas (2018-2020) has written a memoir called My Story: Justice in the Wilderness. The book is an account of Thomas’s time in government, which included his prosecution of several leading figures in what has come to be known as Malaysia’s 1MDB scandal, and it contains several controversial assertions surrounding members of Malaysia’s political leadership and civil service.

Following the memoir’s initial circulation, several influential figures within Malaysia’s political and legal establishment have called for it to be banned and for Thomas to be investigated on defamation charges. Former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed has questioned some of the claims in the book but said the book should not be banned. The police have reportedly received at least 134 complaints against Thomas’s memoir, including the submission of investigation papers by former attorney general Mohamed Apendi Ali and former solicitor general Mohamed Hanafiah Zaharia. Another former Prime Minister, Najib Razak, who was handed a 12-year jail sentence on corruption charges in the 1MDB scandal, has demanded an apology for the memoir’s allegations and has threatened to sue Thomas for damages.

As part of the backlash against Thomas’s memoir, his publisher has also been caught in the crossfire. Under Malaysian law, both the publisher and printer can be liable for a book’s contents. The publisher, owned by Chong Ton Sin, who was formerly imprisoned on politically motivated grounds, is now also a witness in the police investigation and has received a legal notice from Najib Razak. On 19 February 2021, the police took two computers from the publisher as part of their investigations.

The use of criminal litigation to seek punitive retribution against Tommy Thomas raises fundamental questions about the nature of public debate in Malaysia. Thomas’s candid and personal reflections of his time in office are taking place at a time of increasing concern over the Malaysian government’s approach towards freedom of expression.

Considered 'Partly Free' by Freedom House, Malaysia’s government has been involved in several problematic efforts to impose restrictions on free speech and curtail press freedoms, in what critics view as a concerted effort to stifle peaceful dissent. In the past, the Malaysian government has used legislation against those expressing their views peacefully, or those reporting on events of public importance.

Salil Tripathi, Chair, PEN International Writers in Prison Committee stated, 'Malaysia’s politics is going through a turbulent phase, and the 1MDB episode is a matter of grave importance in Malaysia and overseas. Tommy Thomas’s memoir, reflecting on that tumultuous time, is a document of historical importance, and whether his interpretations are accurate or fair is for historians to judge. Those aggrieved by his book should counter him with facts and arguments, and not threats of legal intimidation, and the book should not be banned', said Salil Tripathi, chair of PEN International’s Writers in Prison Committee.

While individuals have a legal right to seek redress for defamation according to Malaysia’s penal code, criminal defamation laws are always wrong. In Malaysia, the expansive scope of defamation legislation has enabled its use as a tool for censorship, serving as a means to censor and punish news outlets and individuals by using the threat of criminal liability for what is frequently legitimate criticism.

PEN International calls on the Minister of Home Affairs of Malaysia, Hamzah Zainudin, to ensure that Tommy Thomas’s memoir is not banned, and that any ongoing investigation is carried out impartially and in a manner that is consistent with the government’s international human rights obligations and its commitment to the constitutional right to freedom of expression in Malaysia. Only by doing so will the Malaysian government show to the world it upholds the right to freedom of expression, even at times when the words expressed are not comfortable for everyone.

For further information please contact Ross Holder, Asia Programme Coordinator at PEN International, Unit A, Koops Mill, 162-164 Abbey Street, London, SE1 2AN, Tel.+ 44 (0) 20 7405 0338, email: ross.holder@pen-international.org