The politics of freedom

By Stephanie Sta Maria (FMT)

KUALA LUMPUR: A fight for freedom of expression in a democratic country is an act of absurdity. Unless, of course, that democracy is tainted by the grubby hands of politics and prejudice. And unfortunately, Malaysia’s democracy falls under this grimy category. Freedom of expression has been curtailed under the guise of maintaining national harmony in a multiracial society. But Malaysians have long stopped believing this story.

One of those who sees through this charade is HR Dipendra, project coordinator of the SEA Legal Defence Network. According to him, the “harmony” argument has long passed its expiry date.

“What is being promoted is an elusive harmony – no one knows what it entails,” he said. “The fact is that we already live in harmony, but for some reason this doesn’t sit well with the politicians. So they create a fictional world in which addressing other people’s ‘peculiarities’ will lead to widespread riots.”

Dipendra’s observation is backed by Dr Farish Noor, a political scientist at Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, who stressed that freedom of expression only becomes an issue when it is politicised.

“And in this region all forms of socio-political expression are politicised,” he said. “It is even mundane to talk about freedom of expression. It is akin to talking about the freedom to engage in commerce. Do we argue when we claim the right to open a shop?”

According to the Human Rights Watch (HRW) deputy Asia director, Phil Robertson, the concerns that HRW has about freedom of expression in Malaysia “could fill a legal pad”.

“Prime Minister Najib (Tun Razak’s) declaration of needing ‘a media… that is empowered to responsibly report what they see, without fear of consequence’ has turned out to be just another flash-in-the-pan statement,” he stated. “The practice is nowhere near approaching the promise.”

“What Malaysia has is an increasingly insecure government, facing a political challenge. And instead of engaging in a debate based on innovation, reform, and quality programes, the government employs negative tactics to shut down and shut out other voices.”

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