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Offence and defence in a civilised society

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Mustafa K Anuar looks at the recent brouhaha over an article in The Star on the caning of three women, which was followed by a police report and a show-cause letter. These reactions are tantamount to criminalising civilised discourse in a democracy, he observes.

Perched on the right-hand corner on the inside page of The Star on 24 February 2010 was a little box that carried the headline, ‘No offence meant’.

This was actually a public apology expressed by the daily over an article written by its managing editor P Gunasegaram on 19 February 2010 headlined, ‘Persuasion, not compulsion’, in the wake of protests and a police report filed by certain Malay-Muslim NGOs and Majlis Agama Islam Selangor (Mais) which felt that the writer, a non-Muslim, had no right to comment on matters Islamic.

Gunasegaram had critically commented on the recent caning of three Muslim women who were said to have committed illicit sex.

It looks like the apology wasn’t sufficient for the powers-that-be. Soon after that, on 26 February, The Star reported that the Home Ministry had issued a show-cause letter to the daily over the article, which was deemed contentious and controversial.

In a society like Malaysia that often professes to be democratic, the proper thing to do would have been for the newspaper to offer the so-called ‘offended’ parties the right of reply in the daily. Hopefully, in such a reply, the parties concerned would be able to argue their case in a civilised fashion. Additionally, the Home Ministry should have shied away from issuing the show-cause letter.

This is important not only for the allegedly ‘offending’ parties, but also the reading public: a proper and well-reasoned response would go a long way towards educating the general public. It appears that the ‘offended’ NGOs and Mais have unfortunately squandered a golden opportunity to engage in meaningful discourse.

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One implication of the action of the Malay-Muslim NGOs and Mais, like many other protesting groups in the recent past, in silencing the newspaper via a police report is that it is tantamount to criminalising civilised discourse in a democracy. It also constricts further whatever available space there is for fruitful dialogue and debate.

Last, but not least, such drastic action could give a negative impression that adherents of Islam are incapable of, or worse, abhor, reasoning and civilised dialogue. In short, their action could give Islam a bad name.


Dr Mustafa K Anuar, a media and communications analyst, is hon assistant secretary of Aliran.


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