Senator Khairul is right if he is asking for safeguards against abuses with regard to MCMC hotline but wrong and utterly irresponsible if he is proposing a “free for all” for hate speech to incite racial and religious distrust, animosity and hatred in plural Malaysia
UMNO Senator who was formerly UMNO Youth deputy leader Khairul Azwan Harun is right if he is asking for safeguards against abuses with regard to Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) hotline on inflammatory speech but wrong and utterly irresponsible if he is proposing a “free-for-all” for hate speech to incite racial and religious distrust, animosity and hatred in plural Malaysia.
Are Malaysians of diverse races and religions more united as a Malaysian people in the past 15 months after the historic decision of the 14th General Election on May 9, 2018, or are they more polarised and divided?
The answer must be the sad latter, not because the Pakatan Harapan Government in Putrajaya had disregarded its responsibility to unite Malaysians regardless of race, religion or region but because of a vicious phenomenon in the Internet era which has given new wings to hate speech, endowing it with great destructive power especially in plural societies unless checked.
What is hate speech?
Hate speech is defined by Wikipedia as a statement intended to demean and brutalize another, or the use of cruel and derogatory language on the basis of real or alleged membership in a social group.
“Hate speech is speech that attacks a person or a group on the basis of protected attributes such as race, religion, ethnic origin, national origin, sex, disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity”.
The laws of some countries describe hate speech as speech, gestures, conduct, writing, or displays that incite violence or prejudicial actions against a group or individuals on the basis of their membership in the group, or which disparage or intimidate a group or individuals on the basis of their membership in the group.
Should hate speech be allowed a field day in Malaysia?
I do not think anyone in their right senses would allow hate speech to incite suspicion, distrust, hate and fear of one ethnic group against another, or of one religion against another, to have a field day and tear apart the plural Malaysian nation.
Already, we are seeing the destructive effect of hate speech, using lies, falsehoods, fake news to incite suspicion, doubt, fear and hatred, pitting race against race and religion against religion in Malaysia in the past 15 months.
My political secretary, lawyer Syahredzan Johan has said that the threshold for investigations into and arrests for offensive social media comments on race, religion or the royalty must be high and reserved only for those inciting violence or hate speech.
As he emphasised rightly, there is an urgent need for laws to tackle hate speech, as it is now rampant on social media touching on the 3Rs (Race, Religion and Royalty) and requires urgent action, but the threshold for investigations including arrests must be high and there must be clear guidelines on what sort of reports can trigger investigations and punitive actions.
I commend the MCMC chairperson Alishasal Ishak in inviting Malaysians to report social media content which contained offensive content involving the "3R" - race, religion and royalty - to the commission on WhatsApp (016 220 6262) or [email protected]
Alishasal is right in urging Malaysians not to retweet, share or author comments to offend other ethnic groups.
Malaysians should cherish what they had achieved on May 9, 2018, which was a great victory for democracy at a time when democracy was in retreat world-wide.
Like democracy, free speech is hard won but easily lost.
According to Freedom House, a watchdog, free speech has declined globally over the past decade.
The most repressive regimes have become more so: among those classed as “not free” by Freedom House, 28% have tightened the muzzle in the past five years; only 14% have loosened it.
“Partly free” countries were as likely to improve as to get worse, but “free” countries regressed. Some 19% of them (16 countries) have grown less hospitable to free speech in the past five years, while only 14% have improved.
Malaysia was one of the six countries which buckled the international trend of “democracy in retreat” and made democratic gains in 2018, sharing pride of place with Ethiopia.
Let us look at what has happened in Ethiopia in the past year.
This is from a recent article in an international journal:
“Only a year ago it (free speech) flowered in Ethiopia, under a supposedly liberal new prime minister, Abiy Ahmed. All the journalists in jail were released, and hundreds of websites, blogs and satellite TV channels were unblocked.
“But now the regime is having second thoughts. Without a dictatorship to suppress it, ethnic violence has flared. Bigots have incited ethnic cleansing on newly free social media. Nearly three million Ethiopians have been driven from their homes.
“Ethiopia faces a genuine emergency, and many Ethiopians think it reasonable for the government to silence those who advocate violence.”
The road to a New Malaysia is rocky and uphill, but we must keep alive our idealism and vision of a New Malaysia which is a top world-class nation of unity, freedom, justice, excellence and integrity, through the five pillar-promises of the Pakatan Harapan Manifesto of the 14th General Election, viz:
- Reduce the people’s burden;
- Institutional and political reforms;
- Spur sustainable and equitable economic growth;
- Restore Sabah and Sarawak to the status accorded in Malaysia Agreement 1963;
- Create a Malaysia that is inclusive, moderate and respected globally.
The alternative to a New Malaysia is to return the country to the trajectory of a failed, rogue and kleptocratic Malaysia – where there will be no democracy, let alone free speech!