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When name-calling does not promote democracy

Such behaviour only made the offending MPs earn an unenviable place in the hall of shame

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The recent ban on the use of derogatory terms in the House of Representatives has reportedly raised the ire of Zuraida Kamaruddin, who felt it constituted a curb on freedom of expression.

She called it an unfair and shallow move, adding that it could stifle the development of the country’s democracy. That’s quite a stretch.

The former plantation industries and commodities minister criticised House Speaker Johari Abdul for banning MPs from using words like kafir (infidels), Zionists and Yahudi (Jews) against their peers in Parliament, following a recent commotion in the otherwise august chamber.

The Speaker invoked standing order 36(10)(c), which prevents MPs from using words likely to promote feelings of ill will or hostility between different communities in the federation.

Zuraida believed using such words were merely the Malaysian way of communicating – and not meant to be offensive or threatening to the extent it had to be disallowed by the Speaker.

As regards the use of the term kafir, Zuraida argued that it was a word befitting those who did not subscribe to Islam. In other words, non-Muslims, the term usually used in formal and informal settings.

While it may be a term used by certain people, most Malay-Muslims do not refer to fellow Malaysians outside their own religious community as kafir. This is obviously not how we have communicated with each other over the years as using such a term can be divisive.

Likewise, non-Muslims normally do not call their Muslim friends and colleagues disbelievers even though there are indeed theological differences between diverse groups in our society.

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In a social situation in which ethnic relations can be strained, it is more desirable to use terms that put a premium on similarities between the groups.

Besides, MPs normally refer to their peers in Parliament by the constituencies they represent.

It escapes us to think that name-calling would raise the standards of parliamentary debate, let alone promote democracy. It is likely to generate more heat than substance.

Name-calling can have the effect of distracting MPs from the important issue at hand.

Similarly, words such as Zionist, Jews and communists should not be used in a flippant manner as they may cause unnecessary hurt or unhappiness in the process.

Which is why it begs the question is Zuraida aware of the grave implications of calling a person in Malaysia “Zionist”, for instance, especially in the present political climate where genocide, dehumanisation and discrimination, among other horrible things, are closely associated with the term?

For that matter, would calling a politician sanitiser in the House of Representatives help to cleanse the foul atmosphere created by politicians’ bad-mouthing?

Contrary to what was expressed in Parliament, the word Jew is not a derogatory term until it is misused to malign the reputation of a person.

In the past, the House has seen MPs using sexual innuendos and racist terms during proceedings, which we can do without as they did not add value to the debates. If anything, such behaviour only made the “Yang Berhormat” (MPs) concerned earn an unenviable place in the hall of shame.

Nothing could be more honourable than MPs conducting intelligent debates and making good policies for the benefit of the people within the framework of free speech. – The Malaysian Insight

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.

AGENDA RAKYAT - Lima perkara utama
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Dr Mustafa K Anuar, a longtime executive committee member and former honorary secretary of Aliran, is, co-editor of our newsletter. He obtained his PhD from City, University of London and is particularly interested in press freedom and freedom of expression issues. These days, he is a a senior journalist with an online media portal
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