Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

A Quick English Language Primer

Written by johnleemk on 4:34:24 am Jan 28, 2007.
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In the wake of my controversial argument that Abdullah's Comments Don't Interfere with the Judiciary's Independence, I have received a number of rebuttals that retread the same arguments against Abdullah. Here is one which I thought was the best and most clear, coming from Maverick SM:

John,

The law is the law and a law is a law. Under the doctrine of the separation of law, the executive shall not pose undue influence nor coercive force to impliedly direct the judiciary or to influence the judiciary's decision.

It is wrong for the prime minister to respond factually in his statement on Rocky and Jeff. He as the PM can make a general statement about the law and the consequences. But the statement he made was directed to the two person facing a trial, which in itself is the factual evidence of subjudice.

Added to the extra prints by the concerned papers such as NST and Berita Harian which had intentionally brought some persons to make comments at the time when the case was to be heard in the court is positive act of attempts to influence the court to direct the circumstances to procure a decision in their favour. It was clear prejudice and there was presence of motive - evil motive - by implication.

Under the rule of law and natural justice, the attempts and publication of circunstantial opinions will be construed accordingly.

It seems clear that there is contempt and whether the court would construe it is left to be seen.

You should understand that public opinion and moral support given to the two person is entirely a different matter. But when statements are directed to the accused and opinions on the case is made, then subjudice is upheld. What had transpired and stated by the "walk with us" blog was factual, nothing more, nothing less.

That's the law, irrespective.

I think that the crux of the disagreement here is that we cannot come to a common interpretation of Abdullah's remarks. A lot of bloggers believe Abdullah was specifically commenting about Rocky and Jeff when he referred to "bloggers", and furthermore that he was effectively calling them guilty by saying that bloggers are not above the law. I beg to differ - in my view, Abdullah was referring to all bloggers, and not just Rocky and Jeff, when he spoke of "bloggers", and that his remarks about the rule of law cannot be equated with an attempt to influence the court's decision.

To clear things up, let's look at Abdullah's comments, which I reprise in full here:

We do not censor the Internet and thatís our policy, but they (bloggers) must understand that there are also laws on defamation and sedition. These laws are enforced. They should bear in mind that they cannot hide and they cannot take advantage of doing something against the law. The law is the law. They cannot hide and hope to be protected under some kind of a cover or whatever they think that they have. And if you want freedom, what is freedom without responsibility? I don't agree with freedom without responsibility. Freedom without responsibility is anarchy. Actually, it is being irresponsible.

I think the most controversial part consists of the first five sentences or so, since nobody (I think) would disagree with the freedom and responsibility part. So, let's parse Abdullah's comment sentence-by-sentence.

We do not censor the Internet and thatís our policy, but they (bloggers) must understand that there are also laws on defamation and sedition.

Here, Abdullah uses the word "they". Without further context, it is difficult to understand what Abdullah is trying to convey - who is he referring to? The newspaper (which I believe is either The Star or the New Straits Times - I can't recall which one I got this from) helpfully provides context by inserting the word "bloggers" in parentheses.

Now, English lesson time. When I want to speak of a particular item using a general noun, I must prefix it with the particle "the". Otherwise, my meaning is unclear. Therefore, when I have been talking about stray dogs in my neighbourhood, I cannot call them just "dogs" - my meaning is unclear. I must refer to "the dogs". Compare the following two paragraphs:

There are many stray dogs in my neighbourhood. At night dogs bark and howl.
There are many stray dogs in my neighbourhood. At night the dogs bark and howl.

In the first instance, the second sentence is ambiguous - it could either refer specifically to my neighbourhood's dogs, or to all dogs in general. Adding the particle "the" clarifies my meaning.

So, in the same way, we must look at Abdullah's comments in context. Since the newspapers did not see it fit to print his opening remarks, we have to trust them that Abdullah was referring to "bloggers" instead of "the bloggers". So, what do you make of this? Was Abdullah referring to any specific bloggers, or to just bloggers in general? If his context had had any qualifiers added - e.g. "some bloggers" or "a few bloggers" or "many bloggers" instead of just "bloggers" - then clearly Abdullah would have been making an implicit reference to Jeff and Rocky. But if he was just speaking of "bloggers", then how can we say he was talking about Jeff and Rocky's case?

You may decide you can't trust The Star or the New Straits Times. That's up to you - I can see why you would not believe them, since they have a knack for publishing propaganda instead of real news. But in this case, why would they want to use "bloggers" instead of "the bloggers"? Surely the latter would have aided their anti-Jeff and Rocky case more, since it would have been a specific reference to them, instead of a general statement about "bloggers". I just can't see a motive for the mainstream newspapers to distort Abdullah's statement by expanding its scope from specific bloggers to bloggers in general, so, shaving with Occam's razor, the simplest answer is that they have not expanded the scope, and Abdullah's original remarks referred only to bloggers in general.

These laws are enforced. They should bear in mind that they cannot hide and they cannot take advantage of doing something against the law. The law is the law. They cannot hide and hope to be protected under some kind of a cover or whatever they think that they have.

Now, the question here is whether these comments constitute any sort of judgement on the bloggers. I would submit that since we have already established that Abdullah was speaking about "bloggers" in general, instead of "the bloggers" or "some bloggers", this cannot be a specific reference to Jeff or Rocky. Nevertheless, for the sake of the argument, let's presume that Abdullah was speaking about Jeff and Rocky.

Does that comment look to you like any sort of judgement about the case? No - all it says is that bloggers "cannot take advantage of doing something against the law" and that they "cannot hide and hope to be protected under some kind of a cover". That's it. He does not insinuate that the law has actually been broken, which would be a very serious violation of the judiciary's independence.

Now, let's give you a free primer in some law as well. There are two aspects to a case. The first is establishing what the law on a particular question is. The second is determining whether that law has actually been violated. In other words, there are two questions to be answered - a question of law, and a question of fact. Abdullah cannot comment on the question of fact - he cannot say that the law has actually been violated. That is a clear infringement of the barrier between the executive and judicial branches. It is difficult to say whether he can comment on what the law is, but let's assume he can't. But did he even comment on what the law is? Nope. All he did was state that there are laws, and these laws have to be followed - that they apply to the internet just as much as they apply in the real world. Tell me, what the hell is wrong with that?

Okay, let's consider a different issue. Some might conjecture that since the press specifically asked Abdullah to comment on the particulars of Jeff's and Rocky's case, his answer has to be such a comment, and is therefore sub judice. This seems to be an untenable position to me. If I ask you what the colour of the sky is and you respond that the colour of your shoes is black, can I accuse you of commenting on the colour of the sky? Of course not. Abdullah was asked to provide a specific comment on the case, but his response was a general one, targeted at "bloggers" and not "the bloggers" or "some bloggers". He did not issue a command to the courts or attempt to influence them, directly or indirectly. He simply said that the law applies to bloggers as well, which it does. So what is wrong with that?

I remain completely unconvinced that Abdullah has attempted to unduly influence the judiciary or that he made any comments about particular bloggers. His remarks were general in scope, and cannot be construed as undue influence.

Addendum



Two interesting comments about this article have arrived in my inbox within a few hours of its posting. One is from helen:

You did a very thorough analysis of the words used by our PM, I applaud your effort. I do not doubt your belief when you said our PM was not referring to the 2 bloggers in the middle of controversy.

We can breakdown the sentence and analyse word for word, but more importantly it is the grouping together of these words that paint the overall picture and the subsequent translation of the human mind that conveys the message.

Seriously, nobody knows for sure what was going through our PM's mind when he make the statement. Was he referring to the bloggers or bloggers?

In view of the fact it's still an ongoing case, our PM should be more careful with his choice of words. In the past, this had really not been much of an issue unlike in the West, where the politician is held accountable for every word that proceeds from their mouth and every word and sentence scrutinize.

I definitely agree that Pak Lah should be very careful in choosing his words, and that there should be greater scrutiny of his remarks. It is healthy and good that the blogosphere critically analyses his statements. Nevertheless, we reserve the right to point out what appear to be holes in the logic of analyses of Abdullah's comments.

I maintain, though, that these sort of comments would not provoke an uproar in other countries were a similar situation to take place there. Abdullah merely said that the law applies to bloggers - it's the sort of thing I think any head of government would say when asked for a remark on the case.

Another comment is from moo_t:

johnleemk, I must remind you that you may falling into darkside of doublespeaking. You just keep breaking the premier away from his executive position. In addition, try to dissociate him from RECENT incidents.

I'm not sure I can parse the language here, but if I'm not mistaken, the message is that Abdullah should not have said what he said because he is a member of the executive. Apparently his error was in saying anything at all about the law, because Prime Ministers should never make any comments that could even possibly be construed as related to an ongoing court case.

I disagree with this stand. As head of the government, the Prime Minister is in charge of enforcing the law of the land (that is, in case anyone's forgotten, the point of the executive branch). It seems ludicrous to forbid him from saying anything at all about the law.

I am not saying that Abdullah should comment on specifics of ongoing cases, nor should he be permitted to influence the judiciary implicitly or expressly through his comments. But if his comments do not attempt to pass judgement on an ongoing case and do not constitute undue influence, why muzzle him? Is it not his prerogative to state that the law applies to cyberspace? Isn't he the one who enforces and applies the law in the first place? It's ridiculous.

There are many good reasons to criticise Abdullah. He's been an incompetent and ineffective leader, and his actions often only serve to advance the interests of him and his cronies. But in this case, I remain completely unconvinced that he's done anything wrong. As head of the executive branch, he has the right to explain how he sees the law and how he intends to apply it, because it is the executive that enforces the law.


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