KUALA LUMPUR - Malaysia's much dreaded colonial-era Sedition Act will be repealed, Prime Minister Najib Razak said, as the country heads for a tightly-fought election.
Najib said late Wednesday the act represented a "bygone era", and would be replaced by a "National Harmony Act" as part of a drive to allow greater freedoms in the country.
"The Sedition Act will be repealed and replaced with the National Harmony Act. The new act will safeguard the right to freedom of speech while protecting national unity by preventing the incitement of religious or ethnic hatred," he said.
Malaysian authorities had justified the use of the legislation, which includes the threat of jail, as vital to curbing comments or actions that could stoke racial conflict in the multicultural nation.
Since the 2008 elections, there has been mounting pressure on Najib by rights groups and the opposition to remove such laws in the country, long-known for authoritarian rule.
Najib, who came to power in 2009, has previously repealed two other laws, including the requirement for newspaper owners to renew their printing licences annually.
Earlier this year he presented new legislation, to replace the Internal Security Act (ISA), to curb the use of indefinite detention without trial and the detention of people for their political beliefs.
The opposition alliance seized power in Selangor and four other states in 2008 elections, yielding their best ever result and stunning the coalition, which has ruled Malaysia for half a century.
Najib must call for polls by March next year. The opposition led by Anwar Ibrahim has set its sights on wresting power from Najib's ruling coalition Barisan Nasional.
Najib announced the repeal of the Sedition Act during a speech at the Attorney General's chambers.
"(The) Sedition Act represents a bygone era in our country and with today's announcement we mark another step forward in Malaysia's development," he said.
Najib, who aims to turn Malaysia into a "developed nation" by 2020, said the new National Harmony Act would nurture mutual respect among the various races, which was vital for stability.
During the reign of Najib's father Abdul Razak as prime minister, Malaysia experienced deadly racial riots known as the May 13, 1969, tragedy.
History books say 196 people were killed and hundreds wounded in clashes triggered by a procession by the Chinese-led opposition parties, who were celebrating a strong performance in elections a few days before.
Their opponents planned their own parade, and rumours of racial violence sparked tit-for-tat killings that quickly spun out of control. A state of emergency was declared and it took months for the tensions to ease.