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Should offensive ideas be penalised?

I AM offended by Datuk Nasir Safar‘s “beggars and sex-workers” remark about non-Malay Malaysians. But I would not agree with those who have called for him to be charged under the Sedition Act, detained without trial or stripped of his citizenship. I am therefore pleased by the sober voices of DAP parliamentary leader Lim Kit Siang and Ding Jo-Ann.

What’s so wrong with penalising someone who makes hurtful statements in order to hurt him or her back, you ask? Well, it means that we cannot refute such statements by reason and defeat them through debate.

By seeking to penalise those who make these statements, we indirectly give them recognition, and therefore make their opinions look valid and powerful — at least to some.

There are two different issues here: that something is wrong, and that it should be banned. I strongly think it is politically immoral to question the citizenship of anyone who has acquired his or her citizenship legally. But if anyone were to question an individual’s citizenship, or engage in any discussion on sensitive issues in general, should that discussion be banned?

Truth, hurt and violence

For those who seek to ban or penalise such discussions or opinions, two grounds are usually offered. Firstly, that the opinion is inherently wrong. Secondly, that it brings about negative consequences, such as damaging the reputation of others, or provoking violence.

You mean the earth’s not flat??
To me, it is not valid to ban an opinion on the grounds that it is “wrong”. It is wrong to believe that the earth is flat or that the sun goes around the moon, but do we need to ban such beliefs? Clearly, truth needs no protection.

The issue of truth aside, we may be tempted to punish the offender because the victim feels hurt. But then again, anyone would feel hurt when his or her interests are threatened. If the purpose of the law is to protect everyone’s emotions, then its net effect would be to defend those who cry the loudest. In other words, the law would preserve the status quo.

If this is not what the law intends, then the only valid reason to ban an opinion would lie in its consequences. For example, spreading rumours during an emergency may need to be banned because it could cause chaos. Even then, whether banning is the best way to stop such rumours is questionable.

Let’s say the argument is that a purveyor of offensive opinions needs to be punished should the offended parties retaliate. The implication here is even more absurd: if the retaliation were greater, would it make the holder of the opinion “more wrong”? If this were so, then the law would, in essence, consist of nothing but the politics of running amok.

But perhaps there is something in this logic. Perhaps it is valid to say that an opinion needs to be banned because it brings about violence. But it needs to be clearly demonstrated how exactly the opinion does this. For example, does an opinion incite violence from those who hold it? Or does it provoke violence from those who oppose it?

Ahmad Ismail (Courtesy of Oriental Daily)
What’s the consequence of Nasir’s insult to non-Malay Malaysians, or Datuk Ahmad Ismail‘s questioning of non-Malay Malaysians’ citizenship? Did either of these statements incite Malay Malaysians to attack non-Malay Malaysians? Clearly not.

Conversely, what about the response of the targets of these attacks, the non-Malay Malaysians? Were they hurt? Clearly, they were. Were they hurt enough to attack Malay Malaysians in retaliation? Clearly not.

Let’s recap. There are four grounds for not penalising those who make offensive statements, such as questioning the citizenship of non-Malay Malaysians:

if the statement is inherently wrong, it can be refuted and therefore needs no legal penalty or prohibition;

the individual should not be penalised merely for hurting the feelings of the target recipients unless the purpose of the law is to protect everyone’s emotional well-being;

if a legal penalty is applied to an opinion that provokes violence from those offended by it, it means the law rewards violence;

there should not be a penalty unless the statement incites violence by the opinion’s supporters — in other words, if it constitutes hate speech.

Current realities

So why are non-Malay Malaysians, including Barisan Nasional politicians, so keen on baying for Nasir’s blood, or Ahmad Ismail’s before him?

The answer is to get even. If a non-Malay Malaysian politician were to question the special status of Malay Malaysians, you can bet that the politician would face legal penalties.

But then we’d have to analyse this situation on its own merits. Couldn’t the special status of Malay Malaysians instead be defended by debate?

Would any questioning of it cause non-Malay Malaysians to attack Malay Malaysians? Highly unlikely. Would it hurt Malay Malaysians? Yes. How would we know — because they might run amok?


Eventually, this ends up as the single reason to penalise offensive opinions in Malaysia: that the offended parties may resort to violence.

And so, in this case, penalising such “offensive” opinions is essentially equal to providing impunity for violent responses to these opinions.

Sadly, this is perhaps the most powerful idiom in Malaysian politics. Remember the numerous protests in the name of religion? Weren’t they essentially threatening violence, instead of upholding freedom of expression? 

Remember the infamous cow-head protest? Why were the culprits charged for sedition, and not for inciting violence?

Perchance it was simply part of a larger ploy to protect violence and shift the blame onto the “dangers” of freedom of expression. As long as freedom is demonised and violence is selectively protected, this nation will embrace fear and despise freedom.

Knowingly or not, those who call for Nasir’s detention under the Internal Security Act (ISA) are legitimising violence. They are essentially excusing impunity for violence and instead attacking freedom of expression.

At the end of the day, those who threaten to use private violence, and those who advocate state-sponsored violence, are partners in crime against peace, freedom and reason. In fact, state and non-state advocates of violence have a strangely symbiotic relationship, something like the bond between al-Qaeda and former US President George W Bush.

But one would be silly to think Malaysian society can still be cowed by the politics of running amok. The burning of churches and the desecration of surau only exposed the weaknesses of the Home Ministry, not society at large. There has been no escalation of religious tensions, as some international media reports would have us think.

                         (Pic by fdsths /
In fact, there is a surprisingly accurate indicator of the growing irrelevance of the ISA: the availability of Maggi instant noodles. In the past, the mere hint of a crackdown or emergency would get homemakers stocking up on Maggi noodles. Do you personally know anyone who still does this now?

The nation is growing up. In Maggi mee we trust.

A political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade, Wong Chin Huat believes the nation is merely going through birthing pains. He dedicates this article to an honorary Malaysian, Soeren Aastrup Varming, who passed away on 9 Feb 2010.

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7 Responses to “Should offensive ideas be penalised?”

  1. Farish A Noor says:

    Chin Huat, our elders used to stock up on Ayam Brand Sardines as well remember? As far as I know they are still available in abundance on the market so that is a positive sign. Trust in sardines too.

  2. LM says:

    I fully agree that the ISA and Sedition Act are both irrelevant here. Nasir Safar’s utterance was a deliberate attempt to incite the target audiences to adopt violence in retaliation, whilst gaining political mileage for himself. The mindless statement had no doubt insulted its target audiences, and the “standard apology” is certainly insufficient to mend the wrong. It badly reflected the lack of quality and intelligence of some politicians in this country.

  3. Termite says:

    The law is meant for everybody without exception. In the case of Nasir Safar, it seems that he had committed an act which had contravened our Sedition Act. If there is a case against him, then like others before him, he must be charged. From there on it is up to the court to adjudge him. The authorities must not condone his act. Lim Guan Eng, Karpal Singh, etc, had been charged for sedition. Why must the authorities concerned treat this Nasir Safar differently? Is it because of his status as special officer to PM or because he is an Umno man, thus he is immune to criminal prosecution?

    […] Until now, there is no news about Nasir Safar’s case. Is it going to die a natural death? The authorities are willing to go around the world to look for Raja Petra Kamarudin to answer his sedition case because sedition is a very serious offence and therefore, RPK must be brought back to Malaysia to answer the charge. And with Nasir Safar? Never mind? Malaysians will forget because Malaysians mudah lupa (pinjaman dari “Melayu mudah lupa” authored by Tun Mahathir)? Sauce for the goose is the sauce for the gander, relevant here (borrowered from the late Justice Augustine Paul). May his soul rest in peace.

  4. thokiat says:

    Nasir and Ahmad Ismail were victims of circumstances. They were merely unlucky in their crusade of racist propagation, like most local politicians, which was exposed and put on stage for public scrutiny. Not too worry, Nasir will be forgiven and may have been allocated another low-profile political appointment as prececent has been shown in Ahmad Ismail’s earlier reprieve.

  5. Grace Liew says:

    Not too long ago the Republican candidate Andre Bauer said about people on welfare: “When I was young my grandma taught me not to feed stray animals because they’d always come back.”

    It’s not just Malaysian politicians that say offensive things all the time, and there is no need for using institutionalised tools such as an act or law to punish them because political death will catch up with them soon enough. A public condemnation is much stronger than an enforced instrument.

  6. Melissa says:

    Another brilliant article by someone who’s now fast becoming my favorite political writer.

    However, I have one slightly differing thought: While I agree that intellectual debate is much better than penalties or blanket bans, etc, I think the reason why they are such popular options here is simply because it’s the easiest option.

    Parties such as MCA, MIC, etc. etc. know that they cannot be allowed to have actual discussions/debates by their parent party. So in that sense, perhaps disciplinary action – no matter how counter-productive – starts to seem like the ONLY option, a small way of salving the hurt. It wouldn’t surprise me because our leaders are notorious for missing the forest for the trees. They’ve done this a million times and the short-sightedness keeps manifesting.

    That’s my take on why we keep perpetuating short-term, meaningless and archaic “solutions” to most issues, followed by a few tree-planting or ang pow-giving sessions to make everything sunshiny once again.

  7. Sulyn says:

    Hi there Mr.Wong, a former Monash student here. My grandma used to stock up on rice and soya sauce. When she passed away last year, my mum found a whole horde of goodies under her bed in her room as well as every nook and cranny around the house!! Talk about paranoia… =S

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