First published in Malaymail Online
By Wan Saiful Wan Jan, (c) 2016, Malay Mail Online (c) 2016

If you have not watched the movie Redha yet, you should. It is a good film with a good storyline, different from typical Malay films today.

I was invited by Puteri Umno to join their charity screening recently. This is part of their campaign to raise awareness during Autism Month in April. The campaign culminatde last Saturday 30 April 2016, with a public event at KL Sentral station. Our team from IDEAS Autism Centre was there too, and I congratulate Puteri Umno for the event.

Redha tells a story about a family coping with their son’s autism. The parents were initially unaware, and when the diagnosis was confirmed, the father went into denial.

The family’s journey in dealing with their special child was both heartbreaking and heartwarming. It is certainly worth watching, especially if you do not have anyone with autism in the family or if you do not know much about the condition.

Before opening the IDEAS Autism Centre (IAC) in Rawang in 2012, I did not know much about autism either. I started learning about it when one of my staff, Mohamad Fakhri Affandi, told me about his son.

His sacrifice for his son, his worry about his son’s future, and his commitment to give education to him inspired me to read more about autism. I was excited when Fakhri proposed that we set up the IAC and offered to lead the project.

Today we have 32 children aged 3 to 9 from lower income families at our centre. Thanks to generous support from Yayasan Sime Darby, Yayasan Hong Leong, Yayasan Siti Sapura Hussin, and many other supporters, we are able to provide the children with care, education and therapy.

Our ultimate aim is to support these children into mainstream primary school, and so far our success rate has been 100 percent.

When I was watching Redha, I was reminded of the many stories that I heard from the families at IAC. Parental love is an amazing thing. Seeing what they do for their children makes you appreciate life’s little treasures. I am really humbled by the opportunity to serve these families, doing the small bits that I can to help them through our autism centre.

Unfortunately I was rather distracted while in the cinema that night. Earlier that week we had a brush with the police when they called our External Relations Manager Azrul Mohd Khalib for questioning.

Azrul joined us in November last year with a rich history of well-rounded activism. In March he started a petition calling for Prime Minister Dato’ Sri Najib Tun Razak to resign. It is an online petition that can be found on here.

He was cautious in separating what he does for work and what he does in his private time. And as an organisation that champions individual liberty, of course we wouldn’t object to what our staff chooses to do outside of work. After all, we actively encourage our staff to play their role in public affairs such that we even have a special leave for those who want to contest in elections. So organising a private petition is small matter to us.

I only learnt about the petition several weeks after Azrul started it. I must admit that I am impressed. The Save Malaysia Movement led by Tun Mahathir Mohamad has been working across the country and they claim to have only about 300,000 signatures up to now. But Azrul, despite working alone without institutional help, has impressively gathered more than 50,000 online signatures.

This is an enviable achievement. And now that the police has questioned him, no one knows how many more would sign the petition out of anger for what they see as unnecessary intimidation against individual liberty.

I am disappointed the authorities decided to use the Sedition Act on a citizen exercising his democratic rights. I do not intend to sign any petition calling for Najib’s resignation but this is not about whether or not I agree with the agenda.

Regular readers of my writing will know that I put higher importance on defending principles and institutions rather than any individual cause. I even publicly defended the right of the Socialist Party of Malaysia to hold a class on Marxism, despite my belief that socialism and Marxism are bad ideologies. The right to freedom of expression and free speech trumps my dislike of any ideology.

That is why I continue to be disappointed that Najib has not yet fulfilled his 2013 promise to repeal the Sedition Act. This is an Act that was not introduced by Malaysia’s founding fathers. It was imposed on us by the British in 1948. It is unbelievable we still keep it when the British themselves have removed it from their own statute books.

The Act gives wide powers to the authorities to stop people from committing a seditious act. The definition of “seditious” is very wide. Almost everyone working on public advocacy will have the Act in the mind. That includes me.

When I write my articles for this column, I self-censor myself because of the Act, but I also know that the line can be moved anytime by the authorities. I am sure the editors will have the same in mind when evaluating whether or not to publish this article (but they have a bigger issue of press licensing too). And definitely some editors would not even be brave enough to publish this comment. Navigating an unclear boundary is not easy for anyone.

It is time the government fulfils their promise to repeal the Sedition Act. Intimidating good people who are exercising their democratic rights is not something we should continue. Using the Act only makes more people feel that the government is insecure.

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