PERKASA president Datuk Ibrahim Ali‘s call for a “crusade” against Christians who challenge Islam’s position was disturbing, to say the least. As was the unsubstantiated front-page Utusan Malaysia report that Christian leaders had pledged to make Christianity the official religion of Malaysia.
What should be the right response to such hurtful and false speech? Should action be taken against Ibrahim, or should Utusan Malaysia’s printing permit be revoked, as some Pakatan Rakyat politicians have suggested?
As appealing as it may be to see Ibrahim charged for sedition and Utusan Malaysia shut down for its irresponsible content, I would urge those calling for such actions to think again. For how can we, on the one hand, push for greater freedom of speech, but on the other, call for draconian laws to be used against those who insult us? How would we be different from the Barisan Nasional (BN) government that has frequently wielded these laws to clamp down on free speech?
The right to speak
It has been argued that if one had to choose a paramount freedom among all the fundamental human rights, the freedom of expression would be the most obvious choice. For it is through the freedom of expression that one can speak up to uphold the other freedoms.
In Malaysia, however, the freedom of expression has been seriously curtailed, despite Article 10 of the Federal Constitution guaranteeing every citizen the right to freedom of speech and expression. The list of acts that allow the government to charge, harass and imprison citizens for speaking out is almost endless. Acts such as the Sedition Act, the Printing Presses and Publications Act and Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) have often been used in the name of national security and public order to silence government critics.
Almost any discussion of governance and politics could potentially be classified a crime under the widely drafted clauses governing free speech in these acts. The CMA’s section 233, for example, makes it a crime to post comments that are “offensive in character with intent to annoy, abuse, threaten or harass another person”. This probably makes us one of the only countries in the world where to annoy someone could land you in prison.
Calling for these overly broad laws to be applied therefore cannot be the answer, despite Ibrahim and Utusan’s hurtful and misleading comments. To do so would entrench the very system that enables the government to silence legitimate and helpful voices in the community.
Malaysians have become too accustomed to being told that things are too “sensitive” to be discussed. Perhaps this explains some people’s knee-jerk reaction in asking the government to silence Ibrahim and Utusan when they utter things we do not like to hear.
But in many instances, it would be more helpful to have open discussion and airing of views rather than a government clampdown. Suppressing comment in the name of sensitivity prevents genuine, legitimate views from being made known and helping to clear the air.
In Utusan’s so-called “Christian state” issue, it was helpful that the organisers of the event in question immediately came forward to deny the blog posts on which the article was based. A statement from Transparency International Malaysia’s president Datuk Paul Low, calling Utusan’s allegations “totally baseless”, was also helpful in clarifying matters. It also helped that newspapers such as theSun front-paged Low’s statement countering Utusan’s front-page report of the two unsubstantiated blog posts.
It is time people exercised their right to talk back when racial or religious slurs or misleading and hurtful statements are made. It is only then that dialogue and discourse can take place, and other Malaysians can be exposed to how different communities think and feel. For how are we to understand one another if we refrain from communicating?
Of course, for this to happen, the government must stop clamping down on free speech. It is utterly ironic that Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Nazri Abdul Aziz cited avoidance of “selective prosecution” as a reason not to prosecute Ibrahim. It is precisely the BN government’s practice of selective prosecution that has encouraged the expression of certain hurtful sentiments while suppressing legitimate, though critical, views.
For the sake of political gain, the BN has systematically portrayed itself as the champion of Malay-Muslim views, resulting in an environment where some views are perceived as more equal than others. This could explain why certain groups have become used to clamouring for government action when feeling remotely insulted, while others have to have blatant mistruths published about them before being roused to some grudging retort.
Is there, then, no place at all for government intervention in the freedom of speech? Yes, there is, but an extremely limited one. The one area where the government should certainly step in is when threats of violence or actual violence are carried out.
In a recent Centre for Independent Journalism and Bar Council forum titled Towards a more ethical media, political scientist Wong Chin Huat said the freedom to offend is part of the price for freedom of speech. “What is not acceptable, however, is physical violence or threats of violence,” he said. “The state has failed to come down on threats of violence. If you remove impunity for violence and threats of violence, then we don’t have to be afraid.”
Wong said if at all, Ibrahim could possibly be investigated for inciting violence, but not for sedition or under the Internal Security Act. “We need to sort out what we want,” he added.
Fighting with our heads
As offensive, misleading and hurtful as some of the things Ibrahim and Utusan have said may have been, I would still advocate that no government action be taken against them. I don’t want to encourage a community where, if every time somebody’s feelings got hurt, someone else could be investigated, charged and jailed.
Instead, we should counter baseless allegations with fact, sense and good arguments. And never respond with threats of violence or actual violence. As Atticus Finch told his daughter Scout in Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird: “You just hold your head high and keep those fists down. No matter what anybody says to you, don’t you let ‘em get your goat. Try fighting with your head for a change.”
Ding Jo-Ann hopes more Malaysians will start learning to fight with their heads for a change.