Monday, December 7, 2009

What Malaysia needs is tact, respect and sensitivity

"WE believe in freedom of speech," is the usual refrain declared by most Malaysian idealists, young or old, whenever this ageless issue percolates passionately in national debate.

Really? Most Malaysians love to spout the ideal even if their understanding of what free speech entails is without nuance, is half-baked or peer-pressured, meaning that they aren't sure why they believe in free speech, except that believing it is the "in thing".

Let's test that assumption. Suppose the same Malaysians are hurled criticisms bordering on insults beyond redemption, laced with extra spicy four-letter metaphors.

The reaction is predictable: most Malaysians would be hurt; some would demand an apology and some would file a defamation suit.

Then the same insults are upgraded with cynical inquiries about their progeny and their lineage. The same emotional demands for an apology will be heard.

Then comes the Holy Grail of insults: the lambasting and scepticism of one's faith and beliefs.
The same recipients would act as before, except some will believe that retaliation merits the use of violence and even murder.

Then the original question is reprised with a slightly different approach: "Do we really believe in freedom of speech?"

The short answer to that may shock even the most rabid advocates of liberalism -- a flat No!

Malaysian freedom of speech is couched in decorum, political correctness, taboos, stigmas, restraint and legalities.

In public and official platforms, everyone, and that includes politicians, activists and speakers bending towards messianism and radical demagoguery, choose their words carefully.

The full weight of the sedition laws ensures that we maintain our balancing act.

There are many who have been hauled to court for breaching this set of written, and unwritten, rules.

Truth be told, we don't practise free speech as absolute as the Americans, British or certain Scandinavian nations do.

Just observe the fuss, trouble and violence it elicited.

Get used to it. Malaysians simply do not have the capacity to espouse absolute freedom of speech.

What they prefer but are reluctant to concede is "controlled speech".

But lately, free speech has been grudgingly flourishing, the sets of speech protocols severely tested and tolerated.

Questions and debates on the so-called Malay supremacy edict proceeded on full throttle while the behaviour of certain religious authorities was met with tough inquiries.

Old taboos are being steadily decimated.

It's a start but what about physical action? Can it be construed as freedom of speech?

Last week, DAP adviser Lim Kit Siang walked and stomped on a doormat depicting extra large pictures of three former Pakatan Rakyat elected representatives who defected and triggered the Perak state government crisis.

At a superficial glance, the conduct of the DAP leader appeared unbecoming and should be regarded as such. But is it free speech?

In the Western perspective, it is so, in the same manner that street demonstrations, flag and effigy burnings, and satires/parodies in the forms of prose, caricatures and cartoons are.

What it is not is good manners. In fact, Kit Siang should be chided for encouraging what the Malays have long disapproved -- being kurang ajar and showing an ugly example to the younger set on proper conduct.

In traditional Malay parlance, kurang ajar is a much-vaunted handle hurled against someone for unsavoury behaviour.

To utter it takes some doing, needling provocation.

Designed to humble the arrogant, the brash and the brazen, the kurang ajar epithet also works most of the time. But for some, to be labelled kurang ajar is a badge of honour, as Kit Siang has amply demonstrated. Even the Pakatan Rakyat rank-and-file were embarrassed by his indecorousness.

"We apologise to all Malaysians offended over the incident. We admit that we made a mistake," Perak DAP secretary Nga Kor Ming sheepishly told reporters.

PKR members of parliament described the stomping as not reflecting Asian culture. But both Nga and the PKR MPs deflected Kit Siang's rude undertaking with an accusation of their own: Barisan Youth should also apologise for burning a picture of Penang Chief Minister Lim Guan Eng (See page 21).

There's a marked distinction here between the picture- stomping and picture-burning incidents: the DAP episode was perpetrated by a top leader while the BN Youth confrontation was conducted in the presence of low-ranking cadres. You don't see the prime minister, his deputy and cabinet members burning up stuff, do you?

There's a grey patch buffering between free speech, dissent and hate speech, it has to be acknowledged.

While freedom of speech in Malaysia is an ideal personified, it is difficult to attain and harder still to practise.

What it does need is tact, sensitivity and respect.

Some Malaysians may yearn to strive to the level of Western free speech militancy, many do not. But that doesn't mean Malaysians can't fashion a healthy collision on imperative issues that affect the nation's future and direction as long as it is sensible even if the subject is perceived as off-limits and blood-curdling. AZMI ANSHAR New Straits Times

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