Thursday, 4 September 2014

The truth about freedom of speech

An ideal sphere and reality can be very different. 
Many years ago, when I was still in New Zealand and in the midst of starting out Chinese Progressive Press, a pro Labour Party weekly free newspaper with distribution around Auckland, I was asked by a journalist friend do I believe in freedom of speech and freedom of press having come from Malaysia where the so called “freedom” is more of novelty during the era of Tun Mahathir.
When I was active politically in Penang, I was asked the same question. It is an interesting but tricky question. Fast forward to this afternoon, after my latest blog questioning the double standard in using Sedition Act against those who utter remarks that are deemed irresponsible and sensitive, another friend asked me if I will fight for freedom of speech. I quoted him Voltaire’s famous line: I may not agree with what you have to say, but I'll defend to the death your right to say it. However, I added that if that right of speech is being abused to create chaos into the society or to damage a person’s reputation, then the right rule of law should be applied regardless of who the person is, and to quote Plato, the measure of a man is what does with power.
Idealistically, we all wish for freedom of speech but realistically, there can never be one, be it in any society for many reasons that differ according to the uniqueness of the society they belongs. When someone actually speaks their mind freely, everyone is either frightened or threatened. A simple fact is that no one can afford to let his neighbor know what he is thinking about them for who knows what will be the repercussion.  All these trouble come from having speech at all. Most great thinkers argued that society can exist only on the basis that there is some amount of polished lying and that no one says exactly what he thinks. Certainly there is a deep amount of truth in it.
In this universe, only human being have articulate language, for the cries of animals serves only as the signals for immediate instinctive needs, like the cries of pain, hunger, fear and satisfaction. However varied the cries of a cat may be, they do not depart from his immediate need. When a tiger devours a man, he may groan with satisfaction but he does not say like someone when cops did a mass arrest recently, “Look, he asked for it”. Or another example is when a fox fails to reach a hanging bunch of grapes, he just goes away: he is not such a bad sport as to call them “sour grapes.”
Only mankind is capable of this truly human language. This is the difference between man and animals. While man talks, animals at most squeal. George Bernard Shaw has rightly said that the only kind of liberty worth having is the liberty of the oppressed to squeal when hurt and the liberty to remove the conditions which hurt them. The kind of liberty we need now in Malaysia is exactly this liberty to squeal when hurt and not the liberty to yank out further nuisance that is going to break this country apart. All of us talk enough but few of us dare to squeal when hurt.
In the context of Malaysia, liberty of speech is not only a foreign notion but must be navigated with extreme self-censorship. As one of our sayings goes “kerana mulut badan binasa” and officials have always been all too eager to dam the people’s mouth more than they dam the river. Officials like quiet people who do not talk and do not squeal when hurt be it they are from Barisan Nasional or Pakatan Rakyat. We must come to reality that that the liberty of speech we demand for the people means there is no liberty of actions for officials. Therefore, the conclusion and the truth is that freedom of speech is only an idealist’s notion.
Once again, back to my humble opinion, I still believe that a certain amount of liberty should be given but if the liberty is breached in a way that it creates damage, action should be taken and we come to a new principle on what is acceptable and what is not. Only by fighting for a new principle, will there be any chance of changing the state of affairs plaguing Malaysia.  

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