Freedom of speech in Malaysia — Emmanuel Joseph


Source: The Malaysian Insight


MALAYSIA often promotes itself as a democracy, with all its hallmarks of fair and free elections, freedom of religion, and of course, freedom of speech. Believers of this often quote Article 10 of the Federal Constitution as evidence of these rights – Clause 1a guarantees freedom of speech and expression, 1b, freedom of association and 1c, freedom of assembly.

But skeptics would point out the qualifying statement immediately preceding those declarations, followed by three lengthier clauses that significantly limit those rights, makes them rights far from absolute. 

Clause 2a specifically empowers Parliament to enact laws to restrict the freedom of speech where it deems necessary to maintain friendly diplomatic statuses with other countries, for the rather general purposes of “public order” and “morality” and to protect the privileges of Parliament itself and by extension, the State Legislative Assemblies.

It also reserves the right to enact laws to further restrict freedom of speech, against potential contempt of court, defamation and incitement.

Because of this, laws have been enacted that qualifies freedom of speech and expression – the Sedition Act 1948, the Official Secrets Act 1972, certain provisions in the Police Act 1967, the Printing and Publications Act 1984, the Multimedia and Communications Act and others, to varying, and lesser degrees.

That is only what is written. Freedom of speech in Malaysia today, appears to be further curtailed by convention. Certain topics have just become plain taboo, like sexuality, religion, criticism of certain actions of the Royals (those that extend beyond the sanctity of the institution and the Rulers themselves) and today, to even government leaders and their families.

While the provisions of the Constitution and the position of trite law is, at the very least, understandable and has some basis in logic, the notion that questioning anything and everything that has to do with religion or government or anything connected to its related institutions, especially if the correlation between the two are weak, should not be allowed to take root as a convenient escape to cover weaknesses, which is beyond the intention and spirit of the law.

For example, political leaders should not be allowed to hide behind religiosity for human mistakes they make in governing, regardless of how much their followers believe they are anointed by God, or blessed by Heaven, or how God-like they are. To attempt to weave that implied meaning into anything mortal is unholy, highly mischievous and should be resisted.

Likewise, when a religious leader makes a mistake, he or she should not be afforded protection from criticism attributed to the religion itself. It is not the religion itself under attack, it is an individual who professes that religion.

The proper maintenance of this important demarcation not only protects the institution of religion in question itself from disrepute, it also prevents the individual from escaping justice by applying an unfair defence, unable to be tested in a court of law or subject to public scrutiny, in the event of misused funds or abused public confidence.

Apart from such impositions by both the law and attempted impositions by political and community leaders, sometimes our own freedom of speech is drowned out by ridicule and insults by our fellow citizens. Somehow now, not only do we not tolerate opinions that are different to us, but it has to be from people who has the same social status or gender expression or racial background to us.

For instance, Azwan Ali’s now infamous opposition to his brother, the PKR Menteri Besar of Selangor. What should have ended with questioning his motives and countering his arguments with facts and counter-arguments soon degenerated into articles and social media posts ridiculing his clothing, mannerism and gender expression.

Likewise, another 90’s celebrity, Sheila Majid was told she did not have the right to question the way the country was run, because she leads a ‘comfortable’ life.

How can we on one hand, demand the right to speak, when we deny others’ theirs?

Whatever the differences in politics we have between each other, and however unfair we perceive the odds are stacked against us, whichever camp we belong to, maintaining a minimum decorum allows for conversation, to win over people to your own cause, prevent echo chambers, and to keep the space we have for freedom of speech, alive and keep it from closing in around us.

We have enough prevention to speak as it is, no need to make it worse for each other to speak out, as much as we do not like the other point of view. – December 12, 2017.

* Emmanuel Joseph firmly believes that Klang is the best place on earth, and that a motivated people can do far more good than any leaders with motive.

* This is the opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insight.