Can Malaysians handle freedom of speech?

Can Malaysians handle freedom of speech?
By Zan Azlee

Pakatan Harapan has made many promises, and as a voter, I will be demanding that they at least make a decent effort to fulfil every one of them. If Harapan leaders think that they have been waiting long for this moment, then the rakyat have been waiting just as long.

However, everyone does realise that this is a period of change and adjustment even if it has been more than four weeks since the change of government. Even the full cabinet lineup hasn’t been completed yet.

The rakyat have been trying to adjust too, and one of the things that they have been trying to get to grips with is freedom of speech. Although many of the old and archaic laws that stifle freedom of speech still exist, the feeling is totally different now.

It seems that people are no longer afraid to say what is on their minds and this is exactly how society should be progressing. But just being able to say what is on their minds doesn’t mean that they know how to handle this new freedom.

For the most part, things are going smoothly. Remember a few days after the elections? RSN Rayer, the DAP MP for Jelutong,  made a stupid remark calling for TV3 to be shut down. Luckily, the party’s senior leaders came out and said the party does not support Rayer’s call.

Freedom of speech should be available across the board and it shouldn’t matter if what is being said is biased or not. It may be true that the previous government didn’t allow for any dissent in the media, but this new government shouldn’t fall into that behaviour either.

Then there was the issue when PKR’s Rafizi Ramli made a statement saying that new Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad had made his initial cabinet selection without properly consulting the other component parties.

This caused a fair amount of frustration and panic among the people because many people thought that it was too early for Harapan to show discord. Almost immediately, the other party members made statements contradicting Rafizi.

Getting used to a new state of affairs

The people of Malaysia will have to get used to this, whereby different statements and opinions are going to made by different people and they will then have to make up their own minds. They cannot expect that all the news and information will be cleanly moulded for them anymore.

If it was the old rule, any contradicting statements would be shut down immediately by the senior leadership. No dissenting voices would be allowed. Remember how former prime minister Najib Abdul Razak would just sack anyone who was critical of him? Well, this is not the case anymore.

Now this brings me to the news media in Malaysia.

We all know that much of the mainstream media in Malaysia have always been aligned to the former BN government. Media Prima, Utusan MalaysiaThe Star, et cetera, are all news organisations that have BN component parties as majority shareholders.

Of course, there has been a mushrooming of many independent news organisations as well, thanks to the Internet. In fact, there have been news organisations that have outrightly stated that they will be anti-establishment – Malaysiakini is one such example.

But the BN government made it very difficult for these news organisations to operate. They would use all kinds of intimidating methods to try and discourage them, and even to scare them, from continuing with their jobs.

With the change of government and the emergence of a semblance of freedom of speech, many of these news organisations have had to review their editorial strategy. How are TV3The New Straits Times and Utusan Malaysia going to report news now?

Will they still shut out any news from Harapan? Well, they obviously can’t do that since that would mean literally not reporting about anything regarding the Malaysian government. Will they be very critical of the current government? Maybe they should.

What about the news organisations that have been anti-establishment all this while? They need to adjust to the fact that anti-establishment doesn’t mean anti-BN anymore. I have to admit that I am going through this exact adjustment.

True freedom of speech

Take the recent issue surrounding Utusan. They have continued to take the stand of preserving Malay rights and they have published a series of articles to prove that. There was the article in which they vehemently opposed the suggestion that Universiti Teknology Mara (UiTM) be opened up to non-bumiputeras.

There was also a series of articles that fought against the appointment of Tommy Thomas as the country’s attorney-general because he wasn’t a Malay and a Muslim. We all know that he was eventually appointed anyway.

Many people, including veteran journalists, spoke up and slammed Utusan for being racist. They said that Utusan was still caught up in the old mentality even though the rest of Malaysia had already moved on from the issue of race and religion.

Let Utusan say whatever it wants to say. It is a new era of freedom of speech, right? But also let other people say whatever they want to say too. Let this discourse and debate happen in the media and just keep it from being violent. That is true freedom of speech.

What is important, though, is that the Malaysian people need to increase their media and news savviness. They need to be more “woke” and aware so that they don’t become gullible and subservient to all the differing opinions and information.

Malaysians need to mature in their thought process in order to make sense of everything, and once we have matured, trust me, then the hate speech spewed by different quarters of the media will die a natural slow death as people stop paying attention to them.

The people already spoke when they decided to break the 61-year-old status quo last month. So I have faith that as a nation, we are only going to progress. But we must not fall into a lull and always be on our toes.

We still need to be aware that the laws that can be used to intimidate the media still exist. That is why we need to make sure that Harapan abolishes these laws. One of the promises that they made was to abolish the Printing Presses and Publishing Act (PPPA) 1984. So get to it, Nurul Izzah!

[This article was originally written for and published at]

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