The little ceremonial institution of our very own Speakers’ Square is the first step of a long journey on the road to democracy and respect for human rights, says Angeline Loh.
“I may not agree with what you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it” – Voltaire
The Fourth of May 2010 will be known as the day democracy was given a space in Penang – it was the day when Speakers’ Square or Dataran Pidato was launched by the first opposition Pakatan Rakyat Chief Minister of Penang. Early in the day, before 8.00am, a small crowd was milling around on the left corner of Millennium Square along the Esplanade seafront while other small groups bunched together in other parts of the large Esplanade going through their morning exercise routines.
The sun was not yet high and the large tree around which a group of elderly persons was chatting, cast a fading shadow over the crowd milling near a sky-blue curtained signboard with a red ribbon flower pinned to it.
Members of the press and broadcast journalists, including “Citizen Journalists” writing for the cyber media in personal blogs and stringers for online news providers were some of the earliest at the scene. They were armed and ready for action with cameras, video recorders, tape recorders, pens and notebooks. These media commandos seemed to sense the relevance of the opening of this space, the only one of its kind in Malaysia outside a university campus. This is the first line of defence of our right to freedom of expression and information under Article 10 of Malaysia’s Constitution and Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
The next group with a vested interest in this space are the human rights, socio-economic, social, cultural and political civil society groups, activists and non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that showed up in some force but to a lesser extent than the media. This is the second line of defence of our fundamental right to freedom of expression and information. The importance of the Article 10 constitutional right (Article 19 UDHR) to civil society cannot be under-valued, as information dissemination, exchange of ideas and opinions, dialogue, debate and discussion can only be freely done by exercising this right. Without this right, service to society would be ineffective and the development of ideas and creativity stunted.
It was within Penang civil society that the idea of “Speakers’ Square” had its genesis. The idea mooted by Suaram Penang was supported by Aliran, Sembang-Sembang and Bandar Perai Jaya Rukun Tetangga, the four civil society groups which ultimately formed the Speakers’ Square committee. This team worked tirelessly over a short time liaising with the local council, state government authorities and to some extent the police, to open up a space for free speech.
Thus, the abstract idea became concrete reality with the cooperation of the Pakatan Rakyat Penang State Government. However, the road to realisation of this dream had its potholes and pitfalls and continues to be a rocky one in view of inherent legal restrictions on freedom of expression and assembly instituted over the 52-plus years of our country’s Independence.
The third – but not least – among the stakeholders of “Speakers’ Square” is the general public. They were the by-standers who came with and without intended purpose on their morning walks at their favourite spot to see the sunrise and perhaps have breakfast with friends. The retirees, the mothers and children, the office workers, MPPP road sweepers and car park attendants, the couples, the homeless people who sleep under the stars. They came to witness this historic event out of curiosity and innocent ignorance that they too are stakeholders with a claim to the Article 10 constitutional right.
As the right to freedom of expression and assembly is a fundamental human right enjoyed by all including the government authorities of a country, the presence of a small number of police and police operatives was no surprise. They also hold a stake in Speakers’ Square that hopefully will be appreciated and not be used to hinder the exercise of this constitutional right by other stakeholders peacefully and lawfully utilising it.
“Dataran Pidato” officially approved
At a quarter-past eight in the morning, the Chief Minister’s silver Mercedes swept through the grand wrought iron-gate to the Esplanade leading to Dataran Millennium, stopping a short distance from the nearly 100 strong crowd to let YAB Lim Guan Eng alight. There was minimal fanfare and no ostentatious pomp, just a respectful silence by the people, as they watched the CM approach the lectern placed near the curtained signboard where he was met by YB Chow Kon Yeow, the state Executive Committee member holding the local government and traffic management portfolio), a few MPPP officers, and a small number of Pakatan Rakyat Aduns (State Assembly members).
Also present amongst the crowd were a handful of distinguished supporters, notably Sulaiman Abdullah, a former president of the Bar Council and his wife; Dato’ Anwar Fazal, the former head of the International Organisation of Consumer Unions (IOCU), Dato Dr Devaraj; and Lim Kah Cheng, a Penang Municipal Councillor and member of the Penang Bar Committee, to name a few. The low-keyed launch still attracted a number of activists and popular bloggers as well.
Thankfully, the police presence was not obvious with only one uniformed police officer stationed a distance from the hub of the event. The police appeared to show some tolerance of the peoples’ exercise of a constitutional right especially in the presence of state authorities.
The ceremony was quite informal, short and sweet with Chow’s opening speech in Bahasa Malaysia thanking the CM, state and local government representatives, Aduns, civil society representatives and the media for coming to witness the launch of “Dataran Pidato”. He hoped the setting up of the square would serve to entrench the right of freedom of expression and assembly as guaranteed by Article 10 of the Malaysian Constitution. It would give meaning to freedom of expression and assembly in a democratic space in this country. This would also be a platform to freely voice the problems of the people in society and in the country.
In his speech, the CM confirmed the government’s stance, adding that “the thrust of participatory democracy is alive and well in this state (Penang) and it embraces the value of freedom and human rights”. He added, “ Let’s not consider the Speakers’ Corner (sic) as just another platform like Hyde Park in London but an important milestone for democracy and free speech in Penang and Malaysia.”
Lim also reminded the people to use responsibly their right of free expression at Dataran Pidato in demonstrating their views and exercising their right to voice them. He cautioned the people that the Article 10 right was, however, subject to other legal limitations that could attract police action: “The police have said that they are unable to provide any legal immunity from prosecution”. He, however, urged the police to “exercise judicious discretion and allow views to be freely expressed”.
He also acknowledged “unfair criticisms” of the government but believed that “we are all mature enough to listen to different views and allow people the freedom to express themselves freely.” He hoped that the exercise of free expression would lead to the “most important freedom of all, which is freedom from fear”.
According to Lim, “a good government must do three things: listen to the people, do the people’s work and give hope to the people. The Speakers’ Corner serves as a catalyst to the growing spirit of democracy throughout Penang and the willingness of the state government to listen to the people to be a good government.” This oratory was closed aptly with a quote from the French philosopher Voltaire on the right to speak one’s mind. The CM also expressed his gratitude and appreciation of the efforts of those involved in setting up Speakers’ Square. The sky-blue curtain was lifted and “Dataran Pidato” was open for business.
Andre Loh, a member of the Speakers Square Committee and representative for Bandar Perai Jaya Rukun Tetangga, gave a brief speech. (This is a newly formed residents association in its second year of operation since it was founded in 2008.)
The little ceremonial institution of our very own “Dataran Pidato”, whch ended as informally as it began, is the first step of a long journey on the road to democracy and respect for human rights, especially our inherent right to freedom of expression, assembly and association.
What lies ahead?
The laws curtailing freedom of expression like the Internal Security Act, Printing Presses and Publications Act, Telecommunications and Multimedia Act, Sedition Act, Official Secrets Act, Dangerous Drugs Act, Police Act and Emergency Ordinance still loom like dark clouds on the horizon causing unease and uncertainty resulting in frequent self-censorship by the mainstream media.
The Penang State Government as well as the People are in the process of coming to grips with having a right and exercising it. The question, “What is the best way to exercise this right of free expression and handle its consequences?” hangs in the air. It is not easy and the exercise of caution is understandable, but not trying inevitably results in not knowing and not learning from experience.
In countries seen to be modern democracies, the right to freedom of expression is a hard won right for which many sacrifices, including that of life, were made; yet, even these face problems of the curtailment of Article 19 UDHR rights from time to time.
It is essential to remember that every human being has the same basic and fundamental human rights and that the freedom to exercise one person’s rights cannot mean the suppression of another’s freedom or the exercise of the same right.
Interesting things have already happened at Speakers’ Square and probably more interesting happenings will no doubt take place in the currently only ‘free’ space in the country.
As Andre Loh said in his speech, “Let us together exercise our right enshrined under the Constitution of this great nation, which guarantees the freedom of speech, the right to assemble peacefully and the right to form associations, to realise our dreams of advancing our people in the spirit of true democracy and freedom.”
Angeline Loh, an Aliran exco member, participated in NGO meetings to prepare for the setting up of Speakers’ Square