KUALA LUMPUR: Laws curtailing freedom of speech and other crackdowns have caused Malaysians to be terrified of speaking their minds, said theatre icon Jo Kukathas.
"We have become terrified of speaking what is on our mind and we have become secretive. We do not express ourselves because we do not know what are the repercussions of sharing our thoughts and lives with others. We have to hide what we really feel to get the life we want," said Kukathas.
Speaking as a panelist at the "Freedom of Expression: Under Threat" forum organised by the Malaysian Bar Council here, she cited the comments attributed to Youth and Sports Minister Khairy Jamaluddin to political activist Ali Abdul Jalil, who is currently seeking asylum in Sweden as something that was "disturbing".
"The remark is disturbing because it comes from a politician. I see a real threat to our freedoms. Things have changed so much from 25 years ago when Instant Cafe was formed, now such a theatre company would not be formed," said Kukathas.
Khairy had responded saying "Good riddance. Don't ever come back," to Ali, who had posted a photo of the asylum card issued to him after his passport was revoked on Tuesday.
Ali sought political asylum in Sweden after he faced charges for allegedly insulting the Malaysian monarchy on Facebook.
"We have stopped believing in the law because they are being used without debate or grounds given for its necessity," said Kukathas.
She added that the principle of freedom of speech as well as other basic freedoms should be celebrated by Malaysians, and that Malaysians need to think of the ideals they wish to champion and celebrate as citizens.
"We need Malaysians who celebrate freedom. Many Malaysians live among us but have emigrated into their own head space or have entered into a tiny community," said Kukathas.
She also questioned the proposed National Harmony Bill.
"The idea of harmony is not an instinct that we have, it differs between people and cultures. How can you say that there is only one harmony, but freedom has travelled and been debated through centuries," said the playwright.
Similar views were shared by former Bar Council president Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan who questioned the need for enhancing laws like the Sedition Act, and proposed anti-terrorism laws which she said curtail the freedom of speech of Malaysians.
"My own view is that there are enough laws. And we have to look at the question of implementation of the laws. We really need to have more confidence in the people of Malaysia and stop living in 1948," said Ambiga.
She also spoke of the eight student leaders investigated by Universiti Malaya for organising a banned programme that saw opposition leader Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim entering the campus in late October.
"We should be focusing on providing jobs for our young graduates, not shutting up the next generation, like what is being done to the UM Eight," said Ambiga.
She also criticised the June 3 filing of a defamation suit by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak and Umno executive secretary Datuk Ab Rauf Yusoh have filed a defamation suit against the company operating the Malaysiakini portal and two of its editors over the publication of two articles on May 14.
"It is very bad advice to have a PM suing the press, it has a chilling effect on democracy. What is the point and how many press outlets shall you sue?
Of course he has the right, but the wisdom of a Prime Minister suing has to be questioned," said Ambiga.
She added that a Prime Minister should reply through the same press, especially if the leader was given a chance to reply.
Writer Eddin Khoo added that freedoms, such as freedom of speech are innate to man, no matter what condition one lives in, and also said that urban Malaysians should not underestimate their rural counterparts.
"A lot of issues have to be exhaustively debated, and while people in the kampungs might not talk about the Sedition Act they are concerned, they have their concerns about their rights. People in the kampungs are concerned about the abrasive nature of politics today, which they feel lacks sensitivity," said Khoo.
He added that people must have the right to offend and feel offended.
"There is a lot of chest beating, but there is no sensible and reasonable dialogue, and the press needs to create a ground for such dialogue. The Star, after the Umno General Assembly gave space to Sisters in Islam co-founder Zainah Anwar to give her analysis, and that was very good," said Khoo.
Meanwhile, Pulai MP Datuk Nur Jazlan Mohamed said that the Sedition Act should be kept on the books as Malaysia was a multicultural, multi-religious society.
"I am for the Sedition Act because it is needed to regulate a nation that is as religiously and racially diverse such as Malaysia.There is a reason why the British enacted the Sedition Act 1948, looking at the people, as a foreign culture, they saw a need to put in the Act," said Nur Jazlan.
He however admitted that there were defects in the implementation of the Act, as he said Perkasa president Datuk Ibrahim Ali should have been charged for sedition for his call to burn Bibles with the word "Allah".
"The Sedition Act should be to regulate behavior and not to punish. If it is used to stifle young minds, I will oppose it. If you stop young minds, we are going to lose out. But with our diverse religions and races, we have to keep it. We never know when we'll have to use it," said Nur Jazlan.