Home Web Specials 2016 Web Specials This funny thing called free speech

This funny thing called free speech

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Isn’t the right to question the government a cornerstone of democracy, asks Yasmin Bathamanathan.

Freedom of speech or free speech is a funny little concept, isn’t it? We hear so much of it, and we hear it being thrown around a lot but what does it really mean?

If we were to be pedantic about it, free speech essentially means that the government or authorities cannot arrest us for what we speak or say.

Then again, reality isn’t too bothered with being pedantic and so, free speech takes the whole “government cannot arrest us for what we speak” one step further. That is, that the government WILL NOT arrest us for what we speak as long as it falls within the domain of their politics.

If we were to look within the Malaysian context, the reality of free speech manifests somewhat like the following scenarios.

Scenario 1: “Politician warns Malaysians of {insert minority ethnic group} origin not to instigate racial tension. If they are not happy with the way things are, leave the country”. Statement is received with standing ovation; bravo, racist, for standing up for our country and culture. Politician is made a minister or government official, and newspapers that run op-eds that read like racial supremacism propaganda are hailed as the purveyors of truth and arbitrators of peace.

Scenario 2: “Enough proof to charge {insert name of top leader} for corruption” – RED FLAG! Run a witch hunt to catch the liar, ban the newspaper that dared to carry the news. If it is online, block access to the site. This is a blatant threat to national security and someone’s got to pay. And by the look of it, most likely truth and real national security would be the ones to pay.

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Sadly, it seems like Malaysian governments (federal and state) tend to act like individuals. They protect their image and threaten to or do sue people, organisations and media institutions for supposedly defaming them. It is as if the governments have more claim to free speech compared with the rakyat.

What’s more, this free speech confusion does not stop at the government level; it also filters down to us common folk. In fact, I have a feeling that this free speech thingamajig confuses us even more than our overlords in the capitals.

While we are quick to exercise free speech, we tend to forget that just because we claim free speech, it does not mean others have to listen to us or agree with us. Especially when it is BS and hate speech that is being spewed.

This means we can make all the racist, sexist, ageist, classist, or all-things-vile-ist jokes and have the freedom to do so, but it does not make us right in doing so, and worst, holding on to such vile notions.

It is just like, if we think it is perfectly okay to use terms such as “Bangla” and “Indon” to refer to Bangladeshis and Indonesians, and that it is our right to free speech to use them, we should also then be okay with terms such as “pendatang”, “keling” or “babi” used against us.

Free speech right, and after all, since we are good people, so should be those who use such words against us lah kan?

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The freedom to speak does not equate to freedom from consequences or criticism, and that’s something we should all remember. If we do not like what someone is saying, we have the right to not entertain them and better, the right to question them. Including governments, politicians and leaders.

And isn’t the right to question the government a cornerstone of democracy? As tax-paying citizens who live here, we have a right to know what our government is up to.

Since much of what we hear about our country seems to be even more convoluted than the plot of daytime soap operas, (somewhat) independent journalistic institutions that are not afraid to exercise free speech and challenge the status quo are important.

Yet, in the light of a news piece that threatens to snag the imperfect story our government has woven, it is free speech that faces the guillotine. And when a government chooses to exercise its free speech to protect its own interest above the people’s, it does look like the people are a lot more driven to exercise their freedom to speak.

So, for now we may be The Malaysian Outsiders, but I hope our gomen realises what a funny concept this free speech thing is, for freedom does not mean being free from consequences or criticism.

Source: The Malaysian Insider

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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9 Mar 2016 10.03pm

In Malaysia, it’s….Head I win, Tail you lose!

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