Thursday, August 28, 2008

‘Don’t try to teach your grandma to suck eggs’

The following passage appeared in a Malaysiakini report on August 26: ‘At a brief press conference in the wake of the defeat, Deputy Prime Minister Najib Razak said the Permatang Pauh by-election showed democracy 'was still alive' in the country and was not being manipulated as claimed by certain quarters.’

On August 27, we learned that 'the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) has ordered all internet service providers (ISPs) to block controversial online portal Malaysia Today.

Juxtaposing the above two developments, it seems quite poignant, ironic, and distressing at the same time that Najib should say that democracy ‘was still alive’ in the country. Yes Najib, I suppose you could say so. To add a little colour to your comment, one could say that it’s ‘still alive’ only because it’s on life-support. And I for one am not convinced that just because Umno/BN took a whipping in Permatang Pauh, therefore somehow democracy is ‘not being manipulated.’ That’s a bit too much for me to swallow.

Such spinning actually runs contrary to the facts about the state of democracy in Malaysia. When the regime blocks and undermines free speech, such measures undermine the very essence of democracy. No system of governance can credibly be referred to as a ‘democracy’ where free speech is not only repeatedly threatened, but tangibly curtailed. To be sure, reasonable people might insist that there are limits to free speech. For the sake of discussion, let me concede this point, although I am not personally in agreement with it.

So, what then are the criteria for limiting free speech? Further, it also warrants asking if this is not a matter for a court of law to decide if some form of speech does not meet some specified standards? Surely these are not just rhetorical questions.

If it’s solely the purview of the regime to decide on the above two questions, it speaks volumes of the nature of our system of governance. And that system – where there are no checks on the power of the regime – surely does not resemble any reasonable conception of a democratic system. If this recent episode of restricting free speech by blocking access to Malaysia Today is any indication, the regime essentially serves as judge, jury and executioner. Now you tell me, does this conform to your notion of how a democracy operates?

Presumably some of the comments on Malaysia Today are ‘insensitive’ and ‘bordering on incitement.’ If this is the basis for censoring the website, what about the mob of protestors outside the Bar Council’s headquarters in recent past whose abusive language – which was clearly and unabashedly ‘insensitive’ and ‘bordering on incitement’ – allowed to prevail? More than that, those instigators were allowed to carry out their intimidation of the participants of the Bar Council’s peaceful and civilly conducted forum. Why, we should ask the regime, were those fanatical purveyors of hate and ‘insensitivity’ not taken to task for “insensitivity’ while Raja Petra Kamarudin is?

Could it just be that this is less about Raja Petra Kamaruddin’s ‘insensitivity’ and more about speech which the regime finds disagreeable to its political agenda but unable to effectively respond to through its usual propaganda methods?

In this context, Najib might well be on to something about democracy being ‘still alive’ in Malaysia – but it seems like we’re barely holding on to it. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine how Najib or the regime could ever teach Raja Petra Kamaruddin anything about respecting democratic values.

G. Krishnan