The Dehumanising ISA
The Malaysian authorities have done it again. A year ago, they took it upon themselves to violently disperse Malaysians calling for free and fair elections; earlier this week, they manhandled and arrested a few dozen Malaysians, including elected representatives, who were calling for an end to one of the most plainly unjust laws in Malaysia — right while they were in the middle of singing the national anthem, to boot. I for one don't know how we can call ourselves a democracy when our elected Members of Parliament can be arrested one evening for voicing their views, and can appear in Parliament the next morning on bail to make a speech.
There are many unconscionable things in this world. The struggle against domestic violence has been going on for decades throughout the developing world. Cruelty to animals is a cause that touches the hearts of many. Others wage a sometimes seemingly futile campaign against war, calling for a perpetual peace between nations. But whatever cause you take up, they all have one thing in common: they require freedom of conscience and freedom of speech.
To be human is to have beliefs; to be human is to speak. Our ability to think abstractly, and to express those thoughts, are what set us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. When we prevent people from speaking their mind, we essentially dehumanise them — and that is exactly what repressive laws like the Internal Security Act do.
Nobody really buys this nonsense about the ISA protecting us from ethnic unrest. Polls indicate that well over a majority of Malaysians want this law abolished. Do you know why the government implemented it in the first place? Because the communists were abusing their liberty to launch terrorist attacks on innocent Malaysians. And when did the communists stop being a threat to us? Oh, I don't know — at least twenty years ago, if you want to be really conservative and date the end of the fight against the communists to the official ceasefire treaty.
Now, you might say that the ISA still has a use for detaining radical Islamic terrorists and people who try to stir up violence. But that's not what the law is for. The ISA is not for locking up people you don't like. Our first two Prime Ministers promised in no uncertain terms that the ISA would be repealed the moment the communist threat came to an end. That promise has been broken by each and every one of their successors.
And it's not just the ISA that is the problem; it is the idea that stands behind it and the host of repressive laws that have seen countless innocent Malaysians thrown into jail and violently abused by the authorities. This idea that somehow it is perfectly fine to dehumanise Malaysians and tell them their opinions don't matter. The greatest irony this week was how poignantly the authorities underscored the complete ridiculousness behind the ISA and other laws which muzzle Malaysians.
After all, what logic is there in arresting an MP if he gets out on bail the next day and goes straight to Parliament for his scheduled speech? There is zero sense whatsoever in this. Why should it be fine for Tony Pua the Parliamentarian to speak against the ISA in one setting, and completely wrong for him to do it in another place? Why are we sending people to the lock-up or prison for saying what they think?
The official reason is that they need a permit to say what they think. But what right does the government have to dictate to any Malaysian what they can and cannot say? The only people who can judge our ideas are our fellow Malaysians. And let's be realistic: the only reason speaking your mind is a threat to public disorder is because the authorities are still pushing this nonsensical story about Malaysians being too immature to handle freedom of speech.
The problem with people abusing liberty is hardly new; virtually every democracy has had to deal with people pushing too far. But there's a clear and simple answer if you are afraid of someone stirring up violence and hatred: if someone is telling people to commit a crime, then arrest them for incitement. There's no need to muzzle everyone because of one or two stupid jackasses who make ill-informed comments about racial or religious issues; as long as law enforcement personnel do their job, and monitor public gatherings for outbreaks of violence, those who cause trouble can be nipped in the bud, and those who just want to air their views peacefully can do so.
Freedom of speech is not something difficult to protect; it is a fundamental human right that cuts to the core of what it means to be a human being. And the fact is, most Malaysians want an end to the oppression that has kept so many of us living in fear for so long of letting our voices be heard. John F. Kennedy once said that those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable. If the government wants to preserve the peaceful democracy our founding fathers bequeathed us, they would do well to heed Kennedy's words. If you prevent us, the Malaysian people, from talking about the issues that concern us, you only undermine that democracy you so self-righteously claim to defend. Freedom of speech and freedom from fear are basic rights each and every one of us is entitled to; it is time that the government recognise this, and put an end to the abomination that is the Internal Security Act.
First published in The Malaysian Insider.