Another report, in the same Oct 15 issue, carried a story about singer Rafique Rashid with his latest spoof
on the country's political events.
Both pieces gave the impression that
Malaysians were now defying authorities
and were finally willing to speak up in
a country where freedom of expression
supposedly never existed.
The truth is that taxi drivers and kopi
tiam customers have been talking
politics openly for years.
Rafique and the Instant Cafe Theatre,
for instance, have been making a lot of
money over the years by taking a dig at
Thanks, in many ways, to a decade of unprecedented economic growth. There was a lot of money around and many Malaysians could afford their high-priced comic acts.
Over the past one month, we have been
hearing the cry for freedom of speech and expression. And the cry has been loud.
Freedom of speech and expression is what all of us cherish and well-meaning Malaysians would certainly want such liberties to be given more leeway.
Without doubt, a democratic government must be ready to face public scrutiny. It must be held accountable
for its actions.
While at times it must make unpopular decisions, the government must also be sensitive to the sentiments on
The people, on their part, must also
abide by the laws. Their grievances must be within legal parameters.
Besides the ballot boxes, we must let a
responsible, vibrant, credible and fair
press grow, without forgetting the country's sensitivities.
With or without the reformasi movement,
there can be no dispute that greater
efforts need to be made to create a
civil society, where the people can
participate more actively in the
governance of their country.
There is certainly room for democratic expansion. Freedom of speech is thus a basic tenet of any democratic country to ensure there are no abuses by the Executive.
Various legislations, such as the
Internal Security Act, the Official
Secrets Act, the Printing Presses
and Publications Act and the Sedition Act have been described as
repugnant to the meaning of democracy.
For many Malaysians who have had the
benefits of liberal Western education,
these laws are regarded as draconian and
Their stance is further reinforced by the many foreign news reports they read.
Unwittingly, they judge Malaysia in the context of the social conditions of the
country they studied in.
It will be difficult justifying the need
to maintain these laws but we must admit
that they have served the nation well,
in several instances.
Some of us shout ourselves hoarse when
oppositionists are detained but look the other way when drug traffickers, religious extremists and
forgers are locked up under the ISA.
Still, laws shouldn't be static. If they
need to be reviewed to suit the times,
they must be reviewed and amended, at
At the same time, we must also deal with
the fact that the economic, education and exposure levels of Malaysians are still very much behind the Westerners.
Just recently, a mere rumour on the
Internet about foreign immigrants rioting was enough to panic Malaysians.
Those who rushed to stock up on
foodstuff included many educated
Malaysians who pride themselves
as being “critical and thinking''.
Many of us, unfortunately, were unable
to differentiate between rumour and fact from the mass of information in the
The Kampung Rawa temple mosque incident in Penang is also another recent example of how fragile we can be.
The reality is, unlimited freedom of
expression has never existed
Freedom of expression comes with
responsibilities. That is why the laws
of slander and libel exist, even in the
most advanced nations.
This democratic tenet becomes more
difficult in a multi-racial and
multi-religious country like Malaysia.
Malaysia has a history of racial riots,
including the May 13 incident in 1969. In 1987, we almost saw a similar explosion of such ugly racial sentiments.
In both cases, racial slurs and demands
by politicians using racial slants were contributing factors.
Many politicians clearly used ethnic and
religious sentiments to win votes
without givig a thought to national
security and unity.
They include many of those who now wear
the cloak of reforms, talking about
social justice and freedom.
Against the backdrop of such experiences, Malaysians need to ask themselves whether the freedom of speech should be unlimited per se or do they still believe some form of legal restraint is required.
The biggest dilemma for Malaysia is that freedom of speech can also become a source of destabilising factor
if not exercised correctly.
Our opposition parties, for example, have little in common except in seeing Datuk Seri Dr Mahathir Mohamad as a common enemy.
PAS, the prime mover of the Malaysian People's Justice Movement (Gerak) has openly said it will not work with any non-Malay and non Islamic
Strangely, many well-intended liberals,
caught up in the current political
euphoria, have not given any serious
thought as to what will be in store if
PAS were to come to power.
The fact is that there is no real sign
of the Opposition offering itself as a viable alternative.
The possibility of a real challenge to the present leadership seems remote although the intensity of
people's protest has been unprecedented.
Ironic as it may seem, under his
leadership, Dr Mahathir has allowed the media industry to flourish more
than any prime minister before
There are now more TV and radio stations, more newspapers including the
Harakah, the official publication of PAS.
Malaysians who refuse to read local
newspapers, for what they perceive as
being biased and pro government, still have a choice of foreign magazines.
They still get to enjoy CNBC and CNN
despite the two TV stations' hard-hitting and distorted reporting on
Neither is there any restriction on the
number of circulated copies of regional
magazines, unlike in a neighbouring
For non-Malays, we remember we were
entitled to only one Chinese and Indian movie a week on TV. Today, there is no limit to our choices.
In the 1995 general election, the DAP
admitted these liberalisations by
adopting a slogan pushing for greater
Yet, Dr Mahathir has probably received
the hardest knocks for his purported
moves to stifle the freedom of speech,
expression and information.
In many ways, the Prime Minister has become a victim of his own success. More than anyone else, he has single-handedly pushed the country to greater heights.
The kind of confidence he has instilled in Malaysians has also led to the young to speak up and to demand for
His outspokenness has led Malaysians to shed their inferiority complex.
National unity has never been greater.
Thanks to a large economic cake, there has been a single mindedness among the
But lest we forget, politics and
economics are inextricably linked.
National unity can disappear overnight if we believe too much in
In a multi-religious and multi-racial society, governance becomes more complicated. It goes beyond slogan-shouting.
As academician Dr Colin Abraham puts it aptly in an article, people cannot eat
freedom of speech.
Rafique Rashid and the Instant Cafe
Theatre, we believe, will admit that talent and a good script are not enough to draw the crowd.