Safeguard this crucial Constitutional right

Every citizen should be aware of and appreciate the immense importance of the right of freedom of expression as enshrined in Article 10 of the Federal Constitution.

IS it possible for a human being to live life fully without ever being able to express his thoughts or to disagree with anyone? Is it possible for a society to progress without quality education, and without respecting values like thinking and knowledge?

To me, if a human being is not allowed to communicate, exchange ideas, discuss or express his or her thoughts, it would be a cruel life indeed.

Freedom of expression is a fundamental right inherent in every human being. It is natural and it cannot be taken away by any other human being without “just” reasons. Obviously, freedom of expression cannot be an absolute right. We learn that as we grow up when we’re punished or rebuked for telling lies, uttering vulgarities or being rude. Our right of expression cannot be used to deliberately cause harm to others. In legal parlance, we say that our right of expression cannot impinge on the legitimate rights of others.

Secondly, Article 10 of the Malaysian Constitution recognises that every citizen has the right to freedom of speech and expression, the right to assemble peaceably, and the right to form associations subject to restrictions that may be imposed by other laws. These restrictions include things like defamation, public order, friendly relations with other countries, morality, and so on. Whether the speech falls within the restrictions is decided by the courts in most instances.

Thirdly, the freedom of expression includes all sorts of expression – speech, writing, drawing, drama and so on. A society that prides itself as civilised or civilising must provide a legal, social and cultural environment for citizens to exercise their right of expression.

The prevailing culture and attitude of society will also influence the extent of the freedom and the content of the speech or expression that is “allowed” in that society. In a society where educational levels are low or the standards mediocre, there will lesser freedom of speech. Furthermore, an ignorant society will be very intolerant of differing views even if those views are correct. Such a society would rather cling to its erroneous thinking due to traditions and fantastic views that have been handed down through generations than to evaluate something new. There is nothing more dangerous than ignorance, which can easily breed violence.

If there is no culture of freedom of expression, ideas and thoughts would probably go underground without dissent and this may cause public disorder in the long run. This is one way by which young men, for example, are recruited to become extremists or even terrorists, when civil debates on religion are disallowed in public.

Hence, freedom of expression in society to address ignorance by way of civil debates, discussions and exchanges of ideas is essential. I am humbly of the view that the more ignorant the person, the more sensitive he or she will be to views that do not match his/her own world view. Therefore, it is important that freedom of expression is safeguarded.

However, whether the right of freedom of expression will be protected will be determined by political will and the prevailing “law” – both written and those “made” by the courts. If the prevailing government and the courts were to pander to the sensitivities of ignorant masses rather than to adopt the attitude to educate society, then the rights will remain crushed under the boulder of the ignorant majority. Society will then never mature and remain sensitive like a spoilt child.

If it’s the majority that’s sensitive, then this will be another case of the tyranny of the majority hindering the development of intellectualism and knowledge in the country. We will therefore be stuck in our incestuous level of thinking and knowledge.

Hence, the relevant authorities must be able to wisely balance the right of expression and the reasonableness of restrictions under the circumstances of a particular case.

Fourthly, the right of expression is very important because the existence of many other rights depends on this right of expression. For example, for democracy to function effectively, informed citizens are required. The opposite of informed citizens may be politically indoctrinated or clueless citizens who are unable to behave responsibly towards the nation.

Citizen participation in a democracy is only possible if people are able to obtain and exchange information (ie, there is transparency). Citizens must be free to ask tough questions of the government and their elected representatives for the concept of accountability to have any real meaning. However, if citizens do not have this right of expression or if they fear reprisals from the authorities, then transparency and accountability become nothing more than empty slogans.

It should be clear that one of the causes of corruption among the powerful is due to the lack of vigilance by responsible citizens who do not have the right of expression.

Fifthly, human beings are social animals. We need to associate with each other to accomplish many things in our common life, from forming a neighbourhood club to various types of associations with diverse objectives. Can you imagine what would happen if the law disallows the formation of any association? It will then be no longer be possible for citizen groupings to cooperate together to achieve common objectives.

Every citizen should be aware of and appreciate the immense importance of the right of freedom of expression as enshrined in Article 10 of the Federal Constitution and safeguard it religiously.

Senior lawyer Datuk Seri Jahaberdeen Mohamed Yunoos is the founder and chairman of Yayasan Rapera, an NGO that promotes community-based learning activities and compassionate thinking among Malaysians.

The views expressed here are entirely his own.

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