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Threat to freedom of expression: Rise of fascism?

It is disconcerting that rational discussions are sometimes met with counteraction or attempts at suppression

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By Ilaiya Barathi Panneerselvam

The International Youth Rationalism Forum, slated for the weekend of 24 December, faced two rejections in securing a venue – despite being initially approved – before finally going ahead at an alternative venue, the Kuala Lumpur Chinese Assembly Hall.

The initial denial was attributed to undue pressure from certain quarters, including certain religious organisations. They had disseminated inaccurate information. They distorted the true purpose of the forum as an event advocating for atheism, thus fanning tension.

The illogical stance of the groups opposing the forum was perplexing.

The forum organisers clearly explained that rationalism is not equivalent to atheism. More importantly, the topics at the forum did not include notions of atheism.

The forum organisers understand and respect the principle of the Rukun Negara (National Principles) about belief in God, just as much as they uphold the Federal Constitution, the supreme law of the land.

The forum covered several topics, such as feminism, the role of men in women’s liberation and social justice. It also touched on the commonalities between the ideas of India’s BR Ambedkar, a fervent advocate of a casteless society, and social reformer Periyar.

The explicit goal was to discuss current issues in the context of a national and international debate using, predominantly, the late social reformer Periyar’s perspective.

Periyar had spent nearly a century working to eliminate inequalities resulting from caste and gender disparities. He had also advocated for rationalism – the ability to think, assess and decide based on logical and critical deduction rather than unquestionable loyalty, even to his own words.

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His ideas have been discussed and debated worldwide, particularly among the Indian diaspora.

In the current Malaysian and global context, right-wing forces seem to be gaining prominence. It is disconcerting that discussions such as these are met with counteraction or attempts at suppression.

One may deduce that these actions serve the interests of those benefiting from existing societal inequities. Is this what those opposing the forum were trying to defend?

Even more concerning was their call to unleash the Sedition Act 1948 and the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012 against those involved in the forum.

Human rights defenders have intensely criticised these laws for their arbitrariness. How could those opposing the forum wish for something that violates many aspects of fundamental human rights?

A forum or space for dialogue is a key democratic method for exchanging ideas, arguing, and processing and synthesising thoughts. This process may or may not challenge and alter existing ideologies and principles – a natural progression for any society.

The attempt to suppress such dialogue was an indirect form of intimidation, going against the ethos of a maturing democratic society. It was ostensibly under the pretext of protecting religion or the Rukun Negara, but in reality, it was aimed at denying rightful freedom of expression.

Remember, Article 10(a) of the Federal Constitution states that “every citizen has the right to freedom of speech and expression”.

Furthermore, diversity has consistently played a crucial role in the preservation of Hinduism, which is frequently regarded as the synthesis of a multitude of traditions.

Hinduism guarantees the freedom to select appropriate knowledge through the notions of vidya (high knowledge) and avidya (low knowledge). This freedom is contingent on an individual’s capacity to engage with their surroundings, experience and environment – not through restrictive regulations.

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If the faith is welcoming, who are these people to be self-appointed gatekeepers?

A thinking society is crucial for societal progress and for democracy to mature. Attempts to stifle voices that differ from one’s own reflect a fragile ego and a desperate bid for attention while projecting oneself as a protector of the faith.

It is worth recalling what Gus Dur, the fourth president of Indonesia, once said, “Tuhan tidak perlu dibela” (God does not need defending).

Ilaiya Barathi Panneerselvam is an independent researcher and secretary of the Petaling Jaya branch of the Socialist Party of Malaysia

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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