Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Don't Fear, There's Freedom of Speech

Written by johnleemk on 7:58:56 pm Jan 24, 2007.

Recently, while fooling around on a search engine, I stumbled on the blog of an old acquaintance - one whom I had not met in over two years. The acquaintance had blogged about a Wikipedia article that I helped write - and knowing the kinds of articles I edit, it was a quite controversial issue. To my amusement, both the blog post and the comments of the blog readers expressed significant concern about the possibility of incarceration for exercising the freedom of speech.

The reason I find this interesting is because this incident shows how the chilling effect of Malaysia's anti-free speech legislation (such as the Sedition Act) has gone too far. I'm not suggesting that we ought to throw caution to the wind and flout the law; the law is the law, even if it is manifestly unfair. Of course this can be taken too far - I'm not suggesting that we should mindlessly obey if the law orders us to murder our neighbour - but the point is that flouting the law for the sake of flouting it is just plain stupid.

This, however, is no excuse to remain silent if you have something to say that does not violate the law. From personal experience, people tend to overestimate the potential for legal consequences of exercising their right to freedom of speech.

For example, the Sedition Act, despite being riddled with loopholes open to government abuse, is largely watertight when it comes to things like pointing out errors in government policy (the statute specifically states that pointing out problems with government policy does not constitute sedition). The Internal Security Act is what should concern most people, since it is very open to abuse - the government can detain anyone who it suggests is a threat to national security. Still, unless you think what you're writing will destroy the country, I don't think you can use the ISA as an excuse to confine your thoughts to the mamak stalls.

In the first place, the government has already promised us no censorship on the internet. Okay, I know - just how much can we trust the government? But thus far, it's a promise the government has kept. The only recorded cases of government interference with our freedom of speech have been confined to those where laws like the Sedition Act were clearly broken. Unless you are planning on comparing Islam to human excretory waste products, I think you shouldn't let these isolated incidents get in your way. There is a lot of room for reasoned discourse in the public sphere in Malaysia. It isn't even all that taboo to question the NEP anymore (although whatever you do, don't question Article 153).

Furthermore, even if you do decide to go insane and spread inflammatory lies around cyberspace, recall that the odds are exceedingly small of you being caught. Many comments on this site's forum tread very dangerously on the side of sedition, but the commentors have not been called in. Malaysia Today hosts a whole coterie of commentators whose sole purpose in life appears to be slinging mud at the Muslim religion and the Malay race. Until recently, it also had a large number of people who were solely preoccupied with bashing non-Muslim religions and non-Malay races, but their number, for whatever reason, appears to have diminished. At any rate, none of these people have ever been hauled in by the police for questioning, let alone detained or charged with a crime.

I believe that our country is on a perilous path at present. Every Malaysian who believes in his country and wants his children to grow up as Malaysians should do his part to working for change in our country. For decades, we have stalled and grown comfy and complacent while the world passed us by. We cannot afford this complacency or this comfort any longer. We cannot afford to see half our population discriminated against by our commercial institutions and the other half discriminated against by our public institutions. We cannot afford to see the tremendous wastage and inefficiencies that have been the legacy of our half-past six "semuanya ok" government.

The reason our government gets away with such travesties is because we, the people, have let them get away with it. While we grumble in private, our government has no qualms about publicly swindling the country while we (and the completely ineffectual opposition) watch and...privately grumble. Our complaints must be made public. We do not live in a police state - not yet. Our country will only turn into a police state if we let it, by abrogating and abandoning our right to exercise the freedom of speech.

It can be scary, I admit, to openly air your grievances. But as long as you are not advocating the patently irrational - as long as you confine your speech to touch on matters which are patently unjust, you have nothing to fear. Just ask yourself - is it moral to say this? Are you advocating something that no upright person would stand for? If you are, you might want to be cautious about what you say. But if you are standing up for what is just, right and reasonable, you should not have anything to fear when it comes to stating your stand.

Many Malaysians would rather blog about their personal lives than public affairs. That is understandable. What is not understandable is that some would rather keep their blogging private simply because they fear government retaliation if they speak up for common sense. Let's be logical here. Will you be locked up for arguing against the crazy contracting system that is effectively a handout system for well-connected Bumis? You won't. Nobody has ever been locked up for such a crime. After all, you are not questioning Article 153 of the Constitution (if you are, then all I can do is wish you best of luck) - all you are doing is pointing out an error in its implementation, something specifically protected by the Sedition Act.

If you aren't convinced - if you want some hard examples - then fine. If you advocate the complete abolition of vernacular schools for the sake of Malay/Bumiputra primacy, then yes, you will get locked up (see the case of former MP Mark Koding). If you compare Islam Hadhari to human excrement, then yes, you will get locked up (well, not really - though your web servers might be confiscated, as happened to Malaysiakini). If you compare UMNO Youth to the Ku Klux Klan and criticise Article 153, you will get locked up (Malaysiakini again). If you allege a vast government conspiracy without any proof of it, you will get locked up (Karpal Singh, in the Anwar Ibrahim scandal). If you claim that UMNO conspired to cause the May 13 riots, you will get locked up (Marina Yusoff). If you accuse the Attorney General of failing to properly handle the statutory rape of a girl by the Chief Minister of Melaka, you will get locked up (Lim Guan Eng). Note, of course, that in most of these causes, those charged did not get "locked up" - I believe Lim is the only one of these people who actually went to jail.

If you can't see the pattern, allow me to point it out. If you are going to make a statement of fact, make sure you've got the proof to back it up. If you're going to make a statement of opinion, don't do something outrageously stupid, as in the first two or three examples I gave. Otherwise, your venting is fine.

People who underestimate how much leeway we actually have (at least de facto) when it comes to freedom of speech here should recall that many things we might consider "controversial" have been published several times without negative repercussions. Tunku Abdul Rahman himself made it a point to republish one of his early speeches, where he called for complete equality among all Malayans. He also openly stated in the 1970s that we were being divided into two classes of citizens. Even controversial things, such as claims that a conspiracy was involved in the May 13 riots, have been published here. I've read a lot of books on Malaysian politics, so I can't be too sure where I read this, but I remember it has been suggested that instead of steadily spreading out from the Menteri Besar's residence, the riots on May 13 appeared to arise simultaneously in several different areas. Provided you have facts, and don't over-extrapolate from them, you can still stand on safe ground.

Of course, there remain a number of flies in the ointment. The NSTP's recent defamation lawsuit against two prominent bloggers isn't going to do freedom of speech any favours. However, we have to remember that as long as you avoid making specific allegations against specific individuals or organisation, you cannot be sued for defamation. Criticising government policy in general cannot by any means be considered defamation.

Of course, some people remain gagged for other reasons. People on public scholarships, for example, cannot risk displeasing the political establishment. Similarly, some universities (including a few Singaporean ones, I've heard) require students to pledge not to touch on sensitive political issues - I know of at least one Malaysian blogger who stopped writing on politics because of this. These are things which simply cannot be helped. Those who do not have any such constraints, however, should not fear to point our problems or errors in the implementation of government policy - nor should they fear to express their opinions, provided they do not run foul of the laws concerning sedition or defamation. Our country is on the brink of destruction - if we do not act now to save the country for our children, they will probably not have a Malaysia to speak of. Even if we dare not participate in politics, we still have two avenues remaining to influence the path our country is taking: the ballot box, and the soapbox. Let's utilise them the best we can.

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Infernal Ramblings is a Malaysian website focusing on current events and sociopolitical issues. Its articles run the gamut from economics to society to education.

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