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The right to dissent – Tan Chee Khoon

It is important that there must be people in this country who are willing to voice their dissent against the wrongdoings of the government

Speak out on burning issues facing the nation, Dr Tan said

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Dissent is part and parcel of any parliamentary democracy. I will go further and say that it is sine qua non, ie indispensable, to parliamentary democracy.

This country has seen three lawyers as our prime ministers and now we have a medical doctor as the head of the executive.

Under the benevolent and amiable Tunku [Abdul Rahman], our first prime minister, we had the emergency regulations which had been used by the British Raj to stifle dissent.

But when the emergency was deemed to have been over, the benevolent Tunku replaced the emergency regulations with the draconian Internal Security Act.

The safeguards provided under the emergency regulations were swept away and all the loopholes plugged up. Thus, the emergency regulations had to be renewed annually and that meant that they had to be approved by Parliament annually.

Previously, the Advisory Board under the emergency regulations had the power to order the release of a detainee, but under the ISA the recommendations of the Advisory Board had to be approved by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong before the detainee could be released. In effect, it means that the government of the day has a veto over the recommendations of the Advisory Board. The Agong, being a constitutional monarch, has to abide by the advice of the government of the day.

Then, in the mid-1970s, when the students in our universities protested at the poverty of the peasants, particularly those of Baling, the then-education minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad introduced the Universities and University Colleges Act, which effectively stifled dissent not only among the students but also sealed the lips of the academic staff as well.

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Then, under the third prime minister, with a reputation of being fair and just, the government struck another blow at liberty and dissent by pushing through the Societies Amendment Act 1981 through Parliament. This act aroused the opposition of almost all sections of our society and the government had to bring substantial amendments later.

Now, when the 2Ms [Dr Mahathir Mohamad and Musa Hitam] took office on 8 JuIy 1981, they gave great hope to the people of this country. They almost promised an era of liberalism where the rule of law would be respected.

But the euphoria has turned sour when the licence for Nadi Insan was withdrawn. The printing press amendment 1984 [the Printing Presses and Publications Act] was passed and the arrest of opposition members under the ISA was resumed.

It is important that there must be people in this country who are willing to voice their dissent against the wrongdoings of the government. Here I must praise and congratulate Aliran on having a dedicated body of leaders and members who are willing to speak out loud and bold against what they think are the wrongdoings of our government.

I myself have contributed my small share in voicing dissent against what I think is wrong with the government. However, that does not mean that I am always criticising the ruling party for their shortcomings. I am prepared and indeed I have given credit where credit is due to the government.

But I do hope that more Malaysians will speak out on the burning issues that face the nation instead of keeping silent and be forever damned by future generations.

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Speech of acceptance by Dr Tan Chee Khoon on being bestowed the Outstanding Malaysian award by Aliran at the Aliran Merdeka dinner on 1 September 1984 in Penang. It has been 25 years since Tan’s passing on 14 October 1996

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