It is refreshing to note that Deputy Communications and Digital Minister Teo Nie Ching recently denied allegations that the ‘unity government’ could not be criticised.
The statement was made in the context of the government having taken certain measures such as blocking a social media platform and instituting legal action to stem the tide of hate speech expressed after the general election.
In particular, online video platform TikTok removed 1,126 videos after the Communications and Digital Ministry expressed concerns over what it regarded as provocations, misinformation and extreme views.
Hate speech was widely circulated on social media, especially in the run-up to the recent general election, sparking fears that the fault lines in diverse Malaysia were further deepened after certain politicians and their supporters craftily exploited race and religion for their own ends.
While such a repertoire of hate speech is a valid concern, Malaysians who treasure democracy have every right to be worried about any governmental attempt to curb freedom of expression.
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This is because experience has shown that excuses such as ‘national security’ and ‘social order’ have been abused by previous governments to justify the violation of democratic rights and the suppression of dissent.
The present government should be judicious in its application of certain laws that might stifle freedom of expression.
In the interest of basic rights and justice, social activists have called on the government to initiate comprehensive legislative reform and to amend or repeal laws such as the Sedition Act 1948, the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, the Official Secrets Act 1972, the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 and the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012.
We would be starting off on the wrong foot were we to argue that the ‘unity government’ should be insulated from criticism, especially constructive ones, simply because it is a relatively new administration consisting of coalitions of divergent ideologies and preferences and hence, would need time to adjust and stabilise itself.
For that matter, any government worth its salt should be confident enough to address criticism and dissenting or contrarian views from various quarters, particularly regarding its policies and actions.
To be sure, we are not talking about cheap personal attacks against government leaders, such as the one executed by opposition leader Hamzah Zainudin against Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim during the first sitting of the current parliament.
We would expect Anwar to welcome and deal with criticism or alternative views from Hamzah, among other MPs, pertaining to, say, measures to be taken to deal with the pressing challenges of high inflation, the sluggish economy and unemployment.
Putrajaya’s decision, for example, to place a one-stop centre for the recruitment of foreign workers under the Ministry of Home Affairs – instead of the Ministry of Human Resources – deserves criticism from stakeholders.
After all, Anwar himself has given the impression in his recent intellectual exchange with a group of 70 Malay professors (who lent political support to Anwar’s appointment as prime minister), and members of both Akademi Sains Islam Malaysia Malaysian Islamic Science Academy) and Institut Darul Ehsan at Seri Perdana that he appreciates competing views and a challenge to conventional wisdom in the pursuit of truth, justice and the progress of the nation.
We hope the likes of Ramesh Rao, the newly appointed special officer to Deputy Prime Minister Zahid Hamidi for Indian community affairs, would not be opposed to criticism levelled against the government.
The leader of the Pertubuhan Minda dan Sosial Prihatin organisation was known during the Najib Razak administration for his regular police reports against government critics. We can only hope that Ramesh will eventually see the folly of his past behaviour.
Taking a cue from Anwar’s supposed openness to criticism, public universities, which are funded by taxpayers, are also expected to be intellectually vibrant enough to provide space for criticism and competing views.
Hence, satirists such as Fahmi Reza should not be treated like rogues by universities.
It is embarrassing to see the management of certain public universities easily rattled by the mere presence of individuals who express views critical of the government or contrary to the universities’.
Criticism and dissent are part of the democratic process that the government must respect. – The Malaysian Insight