The view expressed recently by the chairman of the Dewan Negara Caucus on People’s Wellbeing, Razali Idris, should raise more than an eyebrow as it stigmatises criticism of Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin as mental illness.
Such an opinion does not have a leg to stand on in a society such as ours, where freedom of expression, accountability and transparency are the building blocks of democracy.
To assert that being critical of the ruling politicians, particularly the prime minister, is to suffer mental illness is also to trivialise an important dimension of democracy.
It is even disturbing when this aversion to public scrutiny would lead to the criminalising of online criticism and dissent, as punishment has already been suggested by the Bersatu senator in the form of a sterner law.
This controversial view emerged in the wake of the many criticisms and insults of Muhyiddin posted on an Indonesian website, after he made a maiden official visit to Jakarta.
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The criticisms ranged from an attack on the way the Muhyiddin government handled the coronavirus pandemic, which was considered ineffective, to the so-called backdoor government following the Sheraton Move, which was regarded as lacking political legitimacy.
However, views critical of the Muhyiddin administration also made their rounds on social media in our country.
We have to bear in mind, though, that such criticisms must be differentiated from hate speech and expressions that incite violence, which are reprehensible.
Razali, as a senator, should know the serious implications of his view because such an undemocratic practice of outlawing legitimate criticism of the prime minister mirrors a political environment that is authoritarian in nature.
The moment citizens are not allowed to express frankly that the emperor has no clothes is the point where a country is on a slippery slope – it is when not only is a country’s leader is perceived by the public as flawless through state apparatus and the media, but also there’s the insistence that he or she must be regarded as faultless through the use of punitive laws.
Obviously, we should not take the authoritarian path where leaders take on the mantle of demigods who demand praise and brook no dissent.
To be sure, leaders are not above the ordinary people. They supposedly represent the interests and wishes of the people and, thus, those who betray the people’s trust and concerns must be subject to public scrutiny – and possibly thrown out of power at the ballot box. There is no carte blanche.
Putting the issue in its proper perspective, public scrutiny is meant for all political leaders from various political affiliations and not solely for the prime minister.
That is why leaders in opposition-led states in the federation also face criticisms from the people. For example, Penang Chief Minister Chow Kon Yeow and his government are criticised by some quarters for having insisted on the island reclamation project, which is regarded as injurious to the interests of fishing communities and other people, and to the environment.
Similarly, Selangor Menteri Besar Amirudin Shari was criticised for his plan to de-gazette 931ha of peat forest in the Kuala Langat north forest reserve despite receiving more than 40,000 objections from civil society groups and individuals.
It is the nature of a thriving democracy that allows, nay encourages, the contestation of ideas for the common good of the people.
There have been attempts in the past to paint people who criticise their leaders as unpatriotic. Loyalty to the country may coincide with loyalty to leaders, but not always, for there are times when criticising the country’s leaders becomes the most patriotic act of a citizen.
An example of leaders embezzling the nation’s coffers would illustrate the point. Criticising and calling out the leaders concerned is a patriotic act to help save the nation from financial haemorrhage that could affect its economic sustainability.
You don’t have to “go mental” in exercising freedom of expression in a democracy. – The Malaysian Insight