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Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Free speech in Malaysia is costly

 


In my childhood, the infractions of kids were punished with a verbal roasting from a parent (or both); if the transgression was adjudged to be major, requiring a sterner lesson, a rattan cane or a feather-duster would appear.

This was a time when no NGOs were around to scream "child abuse" and sic the authorities on the parents. We took our painful medicine. We knew the laws, we crossed the line, we had gone to catch fish at Klang River, or some selfish, greedy uncle had complained about stolen rambutans.

No big deal. The cane-strokes were usually a token warning against a repeat of the offence, just over-act on the screams and promise of heartfelt repentance, never again; even when they stung, the hurt was transient.

What really hurt for me was the ritual ending where I had to say "Sorry". For some, the humiliation was rubbed in with the requirement of a "Thank you." Bad enough encouraging lying about being sorry, but expressing gratitude for the painful lesson? That's child abuse.

There was an occasion when heated over a blatant miscarriage of justice, I refused to be contrite. No apology, no going to bed. I sat stewing in my outrage for a couple of hours but had to succumb eventually to the inflexibility of the law before sorry me could go to bed.

That was me when I was a kid. Steven Gan, Malaysiakini's editor-in-chief, is no kid, and Malaysiakini is no new kid in the media landscape. This news portal has had more than its share of the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and can probably expect more shots aimed at putting it in its place.

Malaysiakini editor-in-chief Steven Gan

Last Friday, the Federal Court found Malaysiakini guilty of the charge of contempt of the court. The prosecution figured the price for unfettered freedom of expression should be RM200,000. The court felt that was a mere slap on the wrist, multiplied that figure two-and-half times to make clear the court was unquestionable.

That hukuman was answered, within a few hours, by the public donating the required amount and more (standing at RM745,498 as of writing).

Now, just a couple of days later, the police have opened investigation papers under the sedition and multimedia laws on Gan and Klang MP Charles Santiago for comments made after the Federal Court's judgment.

They were swift in responding to police reports lodged by an individual from an NGO based in Gurun, Kedah. No sleeping on the job.

I wouldn't be surprised, too, in the next few days to see the usual lemmings, seizing the opportunity to be somebody for a couple of minutes before sinking back to being nobodies, appearing in filler news.

Two or three of them standing outside a police station, holding up a copy of their police report, saying their kampung or housing-estate is upset that people can simply express disappointment with a court's decision. They don't call it the Palace of Justice for nothing. Cannot challenge.

They never look like the type who will settle for a "Sorry" or a "Thank you", no matter how unwarranted it is.

Here's a knotty problem for those minions in Jasa: how are you going to convince people that it's "prosecution" (if it should come to that) and not "persecution"?

Here's a helpful tip: read George Orwell's "Nineteen Eighty-Four". Big Brother, ever watchful, ever intrusive, drums into the people everyday beliefs that must guide them in their service of and subservience to the state - freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.

The police can insist they are just doing their job, but they are being answered with a reiteration of the multiple unresolved cases of missing persons, missing integrity and money, that can better occupy their manpower and time.

My first reaction to the news was to have dystopian thoughts about this country. Despite our long avowed abhorrence of communism, are there policymakers secretly boning up on forbidden political philosophy?

Like Vladimir Ilich Ulyanov (better known as Lenin) said: "While the State exists, there can be no freedom. When there is freedom, there will be no State."

There's the man to go to for the blunt realpolitik, no public relations packaging. Of course, Lenin had the advantage of absolute power, being able to torture and kill thousands and send many more to gulags in Siberia's icy wastes. He literally put deviant, rebellious thoughts into cold storage.

Such power is just a wet dream for our current government, particularly Bersatu. Every day, Umno members are taking turns to declare that they have had it up to their gullets about playing second fiddle in the government. Watch out in the next elections.

A couple of days ago, I discovered a book by Mark Twain, hitherto unknown to me, "Following the Equator". In 1894, practically bankrupt and owing US$100,000 because of a bad investment, Twain undertook a speaking tour of Australia and New Zealand, Ceylon, India and South Africa. It is a travel memoir spiced with satirical social observations.

He didn't come to Malaya, but he could have been writing about this country when he acerbically noted: "It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them."


THOR KAH HOONG is a veteran journalist. - Mkini

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of MMKtT.

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