By Khoo Ying Hooi
Last week, I had the opportunity to be part of the Malaysia Freedom Summit (MFS) that organized by the Institute for Leadership and Development Studies (LEAD). This is the third time for the LEAD to organize such forum since 2015. Former treasury secretary-general also the founder of G25, Tan Sri Mohd Sheriff Mohd Kassim delivered a keynote address looking into freedom as a core value of development. Apart from the main session on the state of freedom in Malaysia, the forum also discussed academic freedom, political freedom, religious freedom and economic freedom.
We read about freedom, dream about freedom, and hope for freedom, but what does it really mean? Freedom means different things to different people. My definition of freedom might be different from yours. But what’s important is that it is an inalienable right, which we must respect and defend.
However, putting it in the context of Malaysia, this so-called freedom is fragile. Over the decades, Malaysia’s political system has become a formula for the division of race and religion. Malaysia has a narrow concept of human rights, having signed only three out of the nine binding international human rights treaties. Our Federal Constitution for instance, it protects freedom of belief and freedom of expression. In practice, these freedoms are however restricted. Freedoms of assembly and association are similarly limited on the grounds of maintaining security and public order.
Political freedom is one of the crucial aspects of freedom for Malaysians, simply because we are lacking of it. I highlight this point because the butchery of freedom in Malaysia is entrenched in politics. There are various factors that contribute to our constraints in fundamental rights, ranging from political, legal, cultural and social. This year alone, there had been serious attacks on intellectual freedom by cancelling forums and barring scholars.
As one can clearly observe, there has been much restriction when it comes to political dissent. The recent report, Freedom in the World Report 2017, produced by Freedom House has put our media freedom as not free while Internet freedom as partly free. The outcome of Malaysia’s last two general elections in 2008 and 2013 demonstrated the thirst of the Malaysians for democratic reforms.
Ask ourselves, are we a free society? Unfortunately we are not. In theory, Malaysia has a multiparty parliamentary system of government. We often portray our self-image as a moderate modern country, but the same coalition of political parties has been in power for six decades, and has never lost a general election. This in turn resulted to the fact that, people do not believe in freedom to choose and the relevancy of vote, as they feel they cannot change anything and they feel powerless.
Will the people tolerate authoritarian rule? Come might say yes because feeding families, educating children and professional success are seen to be far more important than freedom of speech for instance. In an orderly society and a functioning economy, democratic politics is always a low priority. Singapore is a typical example of this model. Economic freedom allows for political freedom, but who would actually choose freedom of speech over a meal?
To have a free society, we must create a society in which the inalienable rights of the individual are respected, and the powers of government are monitored with a proper mechanism of checks and balances. In a country with the feature of authoritarian, at times, freedom comes at a price. Some view it as a zero-sum game where more rights and freedoms for an individual could mean less rights and freedoms for another individual. Freedom of thought then comes into picture as a significant aspect that we must create, in order for us to enjoy the freedom in various aspects as a citizen.
(Khoo Ying Hooi is Universiti Malaya Senior Lecturer)