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Brave New World

Published: Wednesday October 15, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Wednesday October 15, 2014 MYT 7:08:45 AM

Protecting the right to speak

When you allow people to express themselves peacefully and when you ensure one group does not harass another group, what you would be achieving in the long term is a peaceful society.

LAST Sunday a group of people gathered at the Speakers Corner in Penang to protest against the Sedition Act. They did not get very far because a bunch of, now how shall I put this politely, unruly humans shouted abuse at them and harassed them to the point where it was impossible to continue.

Now I think these fellows who wanted to stop the gathering have just as much right as anyone else to voice their opinion. Apparently, they will defend the Sedition Act till their dying breath.

What a wonderfully dedicated lot of humans they are; so very committed, so very brave. Maybe they should get a medal.

However, I would like to point out a small point regarding the right to assemble and to speak.

This is not meant for those courageous men who so fearlessly chased away a couple of tourists from Speakers Corner. I am sure their craniums are already full to overflowing with whatever it is they like to put in there and I doubt there is any room in that space between their heroic ears for any new ideas.

No, this message is for the police. I want them to know about certain international standards regarding protests and counter-protests. I am using international standards because I am certain our men and women in blue would like to be an international-standard police force. Surely they want to be seen as one of the best police services in the world.

Anyway, back to the lesson. Everyone has the right to assemble and speak their mind on issues they think are important.

Conversely, those who dislike their point of view also have a right to assemble and speak their minds.

The job of the police, nay, the duty of the police, is to allow both groups the space with which to express them.

However, when you have competing groups, the blood might rise a bit higher than normal and thus, there could be a possibility of unpleasant clashes.

This is why it is the police’s job, nay, duty, to ensure the groups are kept separate.

In this way, everybody’s right to expression is upheld.

It is not the police force’s job to pick sides. It is not their job to allow one group to chase another one away.

In fact, it is the antithesis of what they are supposed to do.

Now ideally I would like to have a police force which truly appreciates the values of a democratic country.

It would be wonderful beyond belief if they understand that when they protect the citizen’s right to speak, what they are in truth protecting is the very essence of our independent nation – that is to say, a nation built upon the promise of civil liberties, democracy and the rule of law.

However, if this is too abstract a concept to be passed on, allow me to make another argument.

When you allow people to express themselves peacefully and when you ensure one group does not harass another group, what you would be achieving in the long term is a peaceful society.

Let me explain. If I am going to organise a protest and I know there will be a bunch of unruly humans who will try to break my gathering up, I could do one or two things.

Firstly, trust the police to keep us apart.

Or secondly, gather a group of people to confront the unruly humans. The second option could very easily lead to fisticuffs and a whole lot of overweight men wheezing for breath.

Wouldn’t it be better if the cops were to just do their duty and prevent such things from happening?

After all, they are always going on about how important peace and security is.

Besides, wheezing fat men are most unsightly.

By the way, in case the police think it is better not to let people gather at all, may I point out two things? Firstly, it is our right to gather and to express ourselves.

And secondly, if you don’t allow people to speak peacefully and if they get frustrated at the suppression of their rights, that is when people turn to unlawful means to get their message across.

Therefore, no matter how you look at it, if the police of Malaysia are truly concerned about peace, then they have to get their act together and start behaving according to international standards of respecting everybody’s right to express themselves.

Here ends the lesson.

> Azmi Sharom (azmisharom@yahoo.co.uk) is a law teacher. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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