A crucial crossroad

IF someone came up to me and told me that all Malays are lazy and untrustworthy, I would probably be offended.

I would be offended because such a statement is an unwarranted generalistion of a whole ethnic community. I would be offended because as a Malay, I know that I am not lazy and I can be trusted. I also know that most Malays are not lazy and are certainly not untrustworthy.

I would not, however, lodge a police report.

Similarly, if someone said to me on Twitter that I chaired the National Young Lawyers Committee like a Adolf Hitler, I would just reply with a curt "K". I would probably be slightly offended because I feel I have not behaved like the despised Nazi leader.

But, I would not lodge a complaint to the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission.

I can take insults like these, as I know I can dish out even worse insults if I wanted to.

Taking offence is normal. It is a human reaction. We have different degrees of tolerance. It would also depend on what is being said and who said it. I am more likely to be offended if a stranger insulted me than if a friend said the same thing. Context is also important.

This is why it should not be the State's business to step in when someone is offended. Nor it is the State's business to step in when a lot of people are offended. The State's business is not to ensure that citizens are not offended. The State would be kept very busy if it had to step in every time people take offence.

Being offensive, on its own, should not be a crime, simply because the threshold is too low and the criteria subjective. Anything can be offensive, and anyone can be offended. In a society, although there are common values, it does not mean that anything that offends a segment of society should be criminalised, let alone if it offended one person. Being 'biadap', although deplorable, is not an offence.

That is why prosecuting a person who has insulted a person holding public office makes absolutely no sense. It is a waste of the State's resource, resources which would be better utilised to combat actual crime.

Freedom of speech and expression is not a foreign concept, but a principle enshrined in and guaranteed under our Federal Constitution.

Of course, everyone knows freedom of speech and expression is not absolute. Even the Federal Constitution allows for restrictions to be imposed, by Parliament, on freedom of speech and expression.

While a comment like 'all Malays are lazy and untrustworthy' should not be restricted', a comment like 'all Malays are lazy and untrustworthy and should be killed' must however be penalised.

There is a difference. The first comment is racist and bigoted. The second comment is racist, bigoted and is an incitement to harm on basis of race. The State must step in when there is a threat or an incitement to harm, either on persons or property. This should be the limit of freedom of speech and expression.

But what of peace and harmony? The argument is that if we let people say whatever they want to say, espousing racist views, spreading hate, peace and harmony in this country will be threatened.

This argument assumes that law is what keeps citizens in order. That without the law, we would be at each other's throats, trying to kill each other.

Most of us are rational, peace-loving human beings. We have lived together for far too long for us to jump at each other at the slightest provocation. This is not some fanciful assertion, it is the reality. You know this too, you live it every day.

Someone who thinks all Malays are lazy and untrustworthy will not change his prejudiced views simply because he may face prosecution for saying it. At most, he might not voice out his beliefs in public. But he will do so in private, amongst his close friends who share his beliefs. Tensions will continue to shimmer under, because on the surface there is a false veneer of harmony.

You cannot compel people to love each other through criminal sanctions. You cannot make people support the Government by punishing people who do not support the Government. You cannot make people respect royal institutions by punishing those who show disrespect. It has not worked throughout history and it will not work now. Patriotism cannot be forced.

Peace, harmony, unity, patriotism must come naturally. It must be nurtured, not coerced. Opposing views, criticisms and dissent must be allowed. Even views which are racist and prejudiced. For it is only if they are in the open can we address them and engage with them. Punishing these views will only result in further resentment and later lead to disharmony.

51 years after the formation of Malaysia, the nation is at a crucial crossroads. Where we go from here will shape our future. Do we roll back the years, stifle the empowerment of the people and clamp down on exercises of constitutional liberties or do we strive forward, learning as we go along, moving ever closer to a matured society with true and everlasting peace and harmony?

The choice is in our hands.

> The views expressed are entirely the writer's own.
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