On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

The dilemma on freedom of speech

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
the establishment.

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 ground.

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
opportunistic politicians.

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.