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programmed by choo sing chye

Freedom of Expression and the Malaysian Mind

By: Choo Sing Chye (9-6-08)

“History teaches that the only way to guarantee an honest government is to guarantee freedom of information - freedom of expression by citizens, freedom of access to information by all.  Democracy is communication:  people talking to one another about their common problems and forging a common destiny.  Before people can govern themselves, they must be free to express themselves.  Without free expression there is no communication, without communication no citizenship, without citizenship no democracy”.  (The Struggle for Democracy)

Freedom of expression is not absolute and it is bound by societal norms.

But since societal norms do not embrace corruption and dishonesty, it should not be seen as an unlawful behaviour on the part of any person who criticises it.

The freedom to criticise acts of corruption and dishonesty are not synonymous to the freedom to criticise freely without any care in the world.

This is not what the rakyat have in mind.  All they want is that the social norms should not be used as a shield to protect corrupt politicians.  They want freedom of the press so that it would act as a deterrent to politicians who are allegedly indulged in corrupt practices. 

Since the government of the day controls the ‘purse-string’ of a nation, it is pertinent that their spending comes under the scrutiny of the rakyat through their MPs or SAs.

As this expenditure made by the government is sourced from the rakyat it is natural that the rakyat should be given the right to know whether the actions of the government break any societal norm like corruption and dishonesty. 

If we have a vibrant free press, the wealth of the nation will become inaccessible to corrupt politicians and this wealth would be used for the betterment of the rakyat instead of enriching a few elite politicians.  Because of this, the rakyat begin to seek information elsewhere.  There is no better place to find than in the Internet.   With the advent of blogging, more opened information is beginning to seep into public domain.

Since nowadays more and more Malaysians have access to internet compared to two or three decades ago, they can never be satiated with simple questions and answers from the BN controlled media.  They find arguments from blogs more stimulating than what the Mainstream Media (MM )has to offer.

One of the blogs, Malaysia Today’s column-like presentation of issues on corruption and abuse of power had inadvertently cournered a sizable readership from the MM.

These blogs and together with a number of news portals like Malaysiakini and Malaysian Insider are setting new standards in the way information is disseminated.  This phenomenon goes hand in hand with the growing demand for knowledge and analytical news by the rakyat.

No more of the ‘jolly good fellow’ sort of description of BN leaders that dominates the English and Malay papers can convince them. But unfortunately, this form of reporting still prevails in the English and Malay papers

Even arguments now must meet a certain level of sophistication and intelligence before they are accepted.

Their inquisitive minds refuse to accept shallow and dry arguments, more so when the arguments put forth are from Cabinet Ministers and Members of Parliament. Because of their stature in our society, the rakyat expect a high degree of balance and intelligence in their arguments.

So when these shallow and dry arguments on corruption are published in the BN controlled press, they move away in droves.

When the BN’s  2/3 majority was smashed in the 12th GE, one of the English daily tried to project a fair image by including interviews with some of the opposition elected representatives.  But it fell short of expectation, the rakyat do not want to know whether DAP elected representatives drink coffee or tea, or dance, or play any musical instrument, or for that matter have a nickname?  It is shameful to call this, interviews.  This English daily is not brave enough to do a Thoothan type of interview with BN leaders.

Fourteen years ago the BN government banned a Tamil biweekly, Thoothan although it did not breach any national security secret or had published anything that was detrimental to the country.

Thoothan at that time was publishing exclusive interviews with the former Samy Vellu’s confidante and MIC public relations committee chairman, V. Subramaniam Barat Maniam.   Thoothan was about to hit the streets on the 22nd June 1994 with a scandalous story alleging that 50 taxi per­mits meant for the Indian community were diverted to a RM2 company.   Immediately the newspaper, Thoothan was banned on the 21st June 1994.

Was it wrong to protect the interest of the Indians then?  Nobody except BN can find anything wrong with this newspaper.

Fortunately, the majority of the rakyat do not see eye to eye on BN’s action.   The rakyat now demand more from the press and the government than before.  They want an honest, open government and a free press which they had shown, through the 8th of March 2008 GE.

For them, information from bloggers and news portals depict the side of the coin which they rarely see or read.

Inevitably the BN’s carpet is getting smaller each day and it would come a day that they can no longer sweep their problems under it.  Then it would take a bold press to reveal what’s under it and it would not be a pretty sight.  But there is none in sight except those in the internet and blogs.

Malaysia in the early years of independence had a vibrant free press but now Malaysia had left far behind nations like Thailand, Philippines and Indonesia.

It’s a shame that we have lost so much over the years in term of press freedom that we can never hold our heads high in this community of free nations who once were military dictatorships.