EVEN if your interest in politics and human rights is at the lowest level, you would have heard of someone being detained or sanctioned by the government for voicing their opinions whether it is via a protest, public speech, Facebook post or, as we witnessed last week, a school play.
The reason it is so easy for the Malaysian authorities to monitor our expressions is because free speech is highly restricted in our country. In fact, free speech should be renamed “speech under probation”. There are many laws regulating our supposed freedom of speech, including the Official Secrets Act, Public Order Ordinance Act, the Printing Presses and Publication Act and, of course, the Sedition Act.
Let’s delve into the Sedition Act, the one with the strangest name but the strongest power to shut people up. This is an act that criminalises speech with “seditious tendency”, meaning any speech that would “bring hatred or contempt or to incite disaffection against” or engender “feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races”.
A lot of complicated words are strung together, but if you’re scratching your head after reading that description, join the club. The definition of this act is so vague and ambiguous that it makes the perfect weapon for the government and judicial system to silence any of their critics.
Pakatan Harapan leaders were aware of the dissatisfaction among activists and regular citizens over the tendency of the past administration to use these laws to curb free speech, hence they included a pledge to repeal such laws in their election manifesto.
But it seems that once in power, Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and his coalition have let these promises slip their mind and the Sedition Act has been used for their own benefit, as in the case of news veteran Datuk A. Kadir Jasin being investigated for allegedly writing a post insulting the Sultan of Kedah and gay rights activist Numan Afifi over a speech on LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) issues that he made at the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva.
In addition, at least six activists continue to face charges under the Sedition Act for engaging in activities that are protected by international law.
These recent developments have made Pakatan’s promise of free speech look like a bad prank.
When a minister and the highest civil servant in the Education Ministry threaten to take action against young schoolchildren for staging a cute presentation on the dangers of unsustainable oil palm cultivation on the environment, they have reached a new low.
Their reasoning? Well, under the Education Act 1966, the ministry will just not allow such propaganda inciting hatred, even if it is against a product or private industry.
Dr Mahathir has used free speech himself to excuse his questionable statements on Jews and the LGBT community, so how can he allow these continuous violations on the right to free speech every time he or his government feels threatened?
As writer Nathaniel Tan so eloquently put it, what we seem to have is an “Animal Farm scenario”, as the good guys of Pakatan have become identical to those from the past government in terms of their intimidation of citizens who sing a tune that’s different from theirs.
It is time for the Pakatan government to up its game and prove to us, the rakyat, that we need not fear the police knocking at our door for writing a post or a comment. It is time that children dressed up as orang utans to express their concern for the environment do not come under such ridiculous fire.
We deserve free speech, and we demand it now.