Malaysia — a nation shrouded in sensitivity

(FMT) KUALA LUMPUR: In Malaysia “sensitivity” isn’t just a word. It is a way of life; an ideology that warily circumvents the country’s political, economic and social spheres. Such guardedness is inherent in a nation with a mixed racial and religious population, but the practice of sterilising and reshaping thoughts and ideas for the sake of keeping the peace may be backfiring on us.

The tip-toeing around “sensitive issues” originated at a time when Malaysia was still testing its multiracial waters. The formation of a young nation meant placing freedom of expression as a secondary priority to national unity and the invisible lines were honoured for this very reason.

Fifty-three years on and those lines have spread and hardened to create boundaries that silence the country’s growing number of dissenting voices. While the length of the leash on freedom of expression heavily depends on which side of the political divide one is on, “sensitivity” remains at the root of every discourse.

In short, you are either gagged for broaching a sensitive issue or given free rein to speak your mind because your sensitivity has been breached.

The question that begs an answer, therefore, is whether our learned sensitivity requires a restriction on freedom of expression or whether the restriction itself has enhanced our sensitivity.

HR Dipendra, project coordinator of the SEA Media Legal Defence Network, believes it is the former.

“This sensitivity has restricted the development of thought and hampered the ability to think critically,” he explained. “So when confronted by controversial topics, many Malaysians will either shy away or unwittingly tread on toes.”

Dipendra described the first group as using “sensitivity” as an excuse for their inability to engage in critical discussions. Most of the critical thinkers, he noted, are a handful who reside within the Klang Valley.

Danger zones

The population beyond the urban landscape is either devoid of an opinion or is afraid to vocalise it for fear of being offensive. While the passivity is alarming, more concern should be reserved for the second group.

“This group recognises its right to freedom of expression but doesn’t understand how to exercise it responsibly,” Dipendra said. “It lacks the intellectual creativity to put forth critically constructive comments and resort to stereotypes and insults to get its point across, which only serves to justify the government’s clampdown on freedom of expression.”

Dipendra confided that his biggest concern is this set of people who allow their overwhelming frustrations to blind them to the danger zones. He chose controversial rapper Wee Meng Chee, better known as Namewee, as an example.

Wee shot to popularity in 2007 after releasing a song which purportedly ridiculed the national anthem and the Islamic call to prayer. Last month he made headlines again with another music video in which he was accused of making seditious remarks. The latest video also contained his trademark utterances of vulgarities and obscenities.

“I feel that Namewee had actually exercised some restraint in that video,” Dipendra laughed before resuming seriousness. “But if given a choice, he would have been more inflammatory and a wildfire would have started.”

“These people are turning to music and writing as an outlet to express themselves because there is a lack of discourse from the government,” he pointed out. “It’s always the civil society that reaches out for a dialogue. We don’t live in caves, we live in a globalised world. If we can’t talk of basic things, then why do we even exist?”

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