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Intellectual Freedom Means Intellectual Rigour

Malaysia has turned into a police state; teachers fear to teach because they might run foul of the secret police. We've already ruined primary and secondary education, but can we at least try to put the "higher" in higher education?

Written by johnleemk on 1:26:42 pm May 4, 2007.

There are three detested laws in Malaysia today. They are the Internal Security Act, the Official Secrets Act, and the University and University Colleges Act.

The thing these three laws have in common is that they all restrict freedom of speech. They make people fear to state what they think, to voice their opinions, and to basically do or say anything which runs counter to the interests of the establishment.

Now, these laws do not necessarily restrict criticism of the establishment. But the actual effect of their words can be very broad; detentions under the ISA can be for virtually any reason, and the Sedition Act — a partner of the ISA — defines sedition so broadly that it actually has to clarify that pointing out errors in the implementation of government policy does not qualify as sedition.

What makes these laws so repugnant, though, is their "chilling effect". People do not wait to be caught by the official censor; they start to censor themselves, to purge their words of any indication of what they actually think.

Now, one may argue that these laws are justified because of their benefits in restraining racial and religious sentiments. (Something I would say is quite untrue, considering how people can get away with questioning entrenched provisions of the Constitution.)

But few policies are ever wholly without merit. We reject policies and laws not because they are no good, but because whatever good they do is outweighed by their detriments.

And looking at the cumulative effects of these laws on intellectual rigour in Malaysian society, I think it is becoming clear that the benefits are being vastly outweighed by these negative effects.

It has gotten to the point where universities — the supposed bastions of intellectual freedom and the independence of thought, to discover and explore our world without the fetters of politics — are forcing faculty to sign documents (Akujanji) swearing that they will not state anything contrary to the establishment.

And mind you, this is just talking about the direct effect these anti-free speech laws and policies have been having on our intellectual climate. The indirect impact is probably immeasurable.

My present literature lecturer loves to emphasise how literature is a reflection of life and the world around us. She often brings up parallels between characters and themes of the play we are studying, and the people and motifs of Malaysian politics and society.

However, she always stops midway, muttering something along the lines of "Don't quote me", before she can get into the exact details of what she means. Why? Because she fears the backlash of being reported to the authorities, despite her innocuous statements (which are really, absolutely nothing compared to what emerges from the gaping jaws of Malaysian bloggers everyday).

Is this not the hallmark of a police state? Is this not exactly what we fought against during the Emergency, during the dark days of the communist insurgency? Were we not fighting for the freedom to think as we wish, and speak as we think?

One can argue that our anti-free speech laws are necessary to combat racism and seditious statements. (Something I would dispute, especially considering that people speaking about spilling the blood of other races live on national television did not cause any racial rioting.)

But we can maintain our ban on sedition and on revealing official secrets without jeopardising the freedom to think and without turning our country into a police state — a country where a teacher can't even draw parallels between a play and the daily headlines for fear that she will be reported to the Special Branch.

How many real terrorists has the Internal Security Act caught in the past decade? Close to zero, and most of them could probably have been hauled in on different charges. The ISA is a relic of the Emergency, and was always viewed as a temporary law — it ought to be repealed.

The Sedition Act can have its scope reduced to only explicitly cover questioning of the entrenched provisions in the Constitution (not that this is actually enforced) and statements of racial or religious hatred. This would easily give academics and intellectuals breathing room to speak their minds — you do not see academics of calibre sparking racial riots anywhere else in the world, and I really doubt Malaysian intellectuals are any different from those in South Africa or India or the United States.

And as for the UUCA? I won't touch on its provisions banning student involvement in politics — that's a whole other kettle of fish — but anything related to prohibiting freedom of expression amongst faculty must be repealed.

These are men and women who we have entrusted our brightest young minds to. These are adult men and women, mature enough to know what to say, mature enough to be trusted to think maturely and reasonably. And yet the government believes they must be banned from talking about certain topics?

This is the height of absurdity. Repeal these draconian parts of the law, and restore a brighter sky to the intellectual climate of Malaysia. We've already ruined primary and secondary education in this country. Let's at least try to maintain a semblance of the word "higher" in higher education, shall we?