APRIL 14 — When I applied seven years ago to be a journalist, my boss told me that my job was to report the “facts”, not the “truth”, since I was a bright-eyed, bushy-tailed wannabe-activist then.
Along the way, I gradually learned the difference between the two. Now, of course, we have “alternative facts” and “fake news.”
What is worse – beyond those terms that Malaysia has long used even before Donald Trump became US president – are the increased incidents of censorship and attacks on press freedom and freedom of speech.
It’s hard to report the facts under such circumstances.
In the latest incident, the Home Ministry has summoned the editor-in-chief of Nanyang Siang Pau over its cartoon on the RUU355 issue that depicted PAS president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang and Dewan Rakyat Speaker Tan Sri Pandikar Amin Mulia as monkeys.
The Tuesday announcement came hours after PAS Youth and several Muslim NGOs staged a protest outside the Chinese-language newspaper’s office.
The police have also waded in and said they’ll launch an investigation, with the Inspector-General of Police (IGP) warning the media against publishing “sensitive” cartoons.
Nanyang was simply mocking the RUU355 debacle that has seen the fifth tabling of Hadi’s Bill – which seeks to enhance Shariah punishments – without resulting in a debate and vote.
Last Thursday, the Speaker postponed the debate after allowing opening arguments from PAS, saying: “If you don’t use your power, you are a bloody fool. Today, I don’t want to be a bloody fool.”
The Nanyang cartoon shows the “Hadi” monkey offering the RUU355 “hot potato” to the “Pandikar” monkey, who leaps off the tree saying, “Keep it for next time”, as a bunch of monkeys get into a fight below. The cartoon is captioned: “Monkeys playing tricks”, with the word “tricks” referencing the Bill.
Was the cartoon offensive? Opinions are sure to differ.
To me, calling someone a “bitch” or a “slut” is far more offensive than calling them a “monkey.” Yet, the police aren’t hunting down people who make such offensive remarks against women online.
Why should a newspaper face State action over a caricature when Hadi is free to call the DAP a piece of “shit”? To be clear, I’m not advocating for police investigations against Hadi.
The point is everyone should have the right to freedom of speech, no matter how crude and offensive they are.
The Nanyang cartoon wasn’t even mocking Islam; it was just taking a jibe at the way Hadi’s Bill has been politicised for two whole years since it first appeared in Parliament’s Order Paper in April 2015. A piece of legislation cannot be equated to a religion.
Malaysia is a multi-cultural society, which means that our lawmakers in Parliament come from diverse backgrounds. Just because a certain Bill touches on religion (in the case of RUU355, it’s specifically on the Shariah court system), it does not mean that those of other faiths cannot question it.
If that were the case, then we might as well prevent non-Muslim MPs from debating and voting on RUU355.
Or we might as well prevent Muslim MPs from debating and voting on the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act 1976, since its proposed ban on unilateral child conversions deals primarily with the rights of non-Muslim parents and children.
The intellectual growth of the nation will be stunted if people are not allowed to question or to make criticisms on topics like religion. Any religious belief, or even the lack of belief like atheism, should be subject to debate, criticism, and yes, even satire.
Freedom of speech is especially necessary in cases where religion is used as a basis for policymaking, be it healthcare, education, marriage, or childbearing.
In Malaysia, religion features in many of our policies, which makes it all the more important to ensure that the interests of the citizenry are not sacrificed for someone’s personal beliefs.
If Malaysia really wants to go all out in preserving “national harmony”, then they can look at Singapore which prosecuted teenager Amos Yee for insulting Christians and Muslims and more recently, fined and deported a Muslim imam for saying during Friday prayers: “God help us against Jews and Christians.” Singaporean authorities even gave stern warnings to two Facebook users in the imam’s case.
Christians and Muslims are minority groups in Singapore, forming 18 per cent and 15 per cent of the population respectively in the 2010 census. Buddhists and Taoists comprise the biggest religious group at 44 per cent. A significant percentage, 17 per cent, say they have no religious affiliation.
So Malaysia can take the Singapore route if it wants to and prosecute criticism and insults of any religion, without being biased towards a certain faith.
If “national harmony” is the reason for clamping down on freedom of speech, it’s preferable to go after those who mock any religion rather than take action against people who criticise a certain faith.
This way, everyone will be happy and there will be genuine “national” peace and harmony across race and religion.
Of course, the best way for our country to develop intellectually is to truly protect fundamental liberties and to allow people to say whatever they want, as long as they do not advocate physical harm.
We shouldn’t try to be like robotic Singapore. Instead Malaysia should aim higher and allow the diversity of thought and opinion to flourish.
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.