Finding the nation’s voice

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More Malaysians and others must find their voice; Christopher Chong reminds us we need to reclaim the public square as a forum for responsible civil discussions.

Tahrir Square, Cairo

Everyone knows that a democracy is a political system where periodical elections take place. But democracy is much more than just elections. It involves the existence of a space which allows for people to freely debate on public issues and government policies as well as presenting alternative ideas without the fear of repercussion. Indeed, the health of a democratic society is dependent on the existence of such a space.

This space – which could take various forms, i.e. physical, print, broadcast or virtual – also known as the public sphere enables people to freely gather to discuss and identify societal or political problems so that such discussions will lead to political action for the good of society.

Tahrir Square in Eygpt is a good example of how the public sphere was utilised by ordinary Egyptians who want to see political and social changes in their society. Through the mass protests throughout the country where Tahrir Square served as a focal point for hundreds of thousands of people gathered together to demand a change of the government, which had overstayed its welcome. Their efforts were crowned with the government bowing to the wishes of the people.

The deformed Malaysian public sphere

Although Malaysia has all the trappings of a democratic society, i.e. periodical elections, alas it is one of form without spirit. This is because the Malaysian public sphere is moribund because of the various laws that cordoned off this sphere from the public.

For example, the media plays a vital role in the public sphere by bringing to attention the various issues that affect society. So important is this institution to the democratic scheme of things that its freedom is guaranteed by the state.

The Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) 1984, however, seriously curtails media freedom in this country. The PPPA, which covers all forms of printed media whether foreign or local, gives the Ministry of Home Affairs the discretion to grant or revoke the publishing licences of local newspapers.

This act makes it compulsory for newspapers to have an annual publishing permit, which is granted by the minister, whose decision cannot be challenged in court. The permit can be revoked if the home minister deems a publication contains anything that is “prejudicial to public order or national security”. The problem here is that what constitutes “prejudicial” is unclear. The same rule also applies to foreign papers and journals. These foreign publications must pay a large deposit that would be forfeited if the publisher does not appear in court to face charges of publishing materials deemed to be “prejudicial to national interests”. The Ministry of Home Affairs has the authority to censor or ban foreign publications that contain what it considers as “prejudicial” materials.

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The PPPA, in short, was designed to curtail the media’s obligation of reporting issues that are of interest to the Malaysian public in order for a public discussion to take place. More tragically, the PPPA has brought about a culture of self-censorship among the newspapers themselves in order to pre-empt actions from the Ministry of Home Affairs. The Communications and Multimedia Act serves the same function as the PPPA in the area of broadcast.

If the PPPA curtails media freedom, then the Sedition Act curtails what can be said in the public sphere. The act, which was introduced during British rule, makes it unlawful for “any act, speech, words, publications or any other thing” that has any of the following “seditious” tendencies:

  • to bring hatred or contempt or to excite disaffection against any ruler or against any government; or against the administration of justice; or against the Yang di-Pertuan Agong or ruler of any state;
  • to excite revolt by unlawful means;
  • to promote feelings of ill-will and hostility between races or classes of the population;
  • to question provisions in the Federal Constitution with regards to the national language, citizenship and special position of the Bumiputera.

In short, this act deemed that anything you say that offends anyone can land you in trouble with the law. And because public debates have the tendency to become heated (particularly on controversial issues), we are told to keep silent for fear of transgressing the act. Is it therefore surprising that the quality of discussions (let us not talk of debate) in the public sphere tends towards the mediocre and trivial?

What is more tragic is the level of public discussions and debate in our parliament is no better than what we have outside its august hall. The Constitution (Amendment) Act 1971 makes it unlawful for even an MP (whom we voted precisely for this purpose) to debate on issues concerning citizenship, national language, etc. One wonders what exactly MPs discuss if they cannot raise any issues that have a bearing to the well-being of the nation.

OSA chokes public discussion

Adding to this plethora of laws that restricts the public’s participation in this sphere is the Official Secrets Act (OSA) 1972. This Act makes it an offence to publish without any authorisation any information in the hands of the government that is classified as “top secret”, “secret”, “confidential”, or restricted by its officers.

According to section 2 of the act, the term “official” is interpreted as “relating to public service” while “official secret” is defined as “ [A]ny documents specified in the Schedule and material relating thereto and includes any other official document, information and material as may be classified as ‘Top Secret’, ‘Secret’, ‘Confidential’, or ‘Restricted’, as the case may be, by a Minister, the Mentri Besar or Chief Minister of a State or such public officer …”. In other words, the broad interpretation of this act ensures that any material classified as “Top Secret” will be off limit to the public (even if access to such information carries no potential threat to national security). And in so doing, the act chokes off public discussion.

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So, in theory, the government can classify something as trivial as how many toilets there are in the prime minister’s residence if it deems such information a state secret. Is it therefore surprising that all agreements between the government and private firms on matters such as toll concessions and water supply fall under this act?

Not only do the laws affecting the nation’s public sphere restrict discussion and debate, they also restrict people from physically gathering in public spaces to learn and discuss issues affecting them (and let us not forget, to peacefully protest). The Police Act 1967 requires a licence to be obtained from the police for any public assemblies, meetings and processions. The police can refuse to grant a licence when applied and, if the licence is granted, they can impose certain conditions or revoke it at any time. Without a licence (or when the conditions attached are breached), the police can stop the public gathering and order its dispersal.

One can go on talking about other laws such as the Internal Security Act, but the point of all these laws is to mute voices of dissent and alternative ideas in the name of national interest and public peace.

Signs of hope?

Although the nation’s public sphere has been moribund for decades, there are hopeful signs that a revival in this sphere is under way due to advancements in information and communication technologies. Of these technologies, the internet must surely rank as the most important in giving ordinary Malaysians access to a virtual space, which enables them to propagate alternative ideas and dissent, as opposed to the traditional public sphere such as print and broadcast media, which are heavily regulated.

The emergence of blogs, social networks and alternative news portals on the internet has given people tools to circumvent those laws designed to mute the public sphere. For example, in the case of news, Malaysians have traditionally a restricted diet of ‘approved’ newspapers to choose from to find out what is happening to the nation. Given the culture of self-censorship and restricted laws on what can be reported, one can hardly find any compelling reason to subscribe to mainstream newspapers.

In the past few years, however, the Malaysian public now have a choice of news portals such as Malaysiakini, Free Malaysia Today and The Malaysian Insider to choose from. More importantly, these portals carry news that is seldom reported in the mainstream newspapers. Is it any wonder then that the circulation of mainstream newspapers is dropping?

Perhaps, the most exciting development that is connecting people back to the public sphere is the emergence of social networking sites on the internet such as Facebook (and Twitter. Social networking sites such as these offer not only outlets for politicians on both sides of the aisle to communicate with people but also opportunities for people to connect with other people in discussing and debating public issues and policies and a space to float alternative ideas … something that was unthinkable only a decade back.

A good example of the potential influence of social networking sites is the 1M Malaysians Reject 100-storey Mega Tower Facebook page which has to date drawn in close to 300,000 fans. Although this page was initially created to protest against the 100-storey tower project in the heart of Kuala Lumpur, its content has moved away from just protesting about this project to include other issues that affect the Malaysian public. Through Facebook, individuals can promote their causes to a large pool of like-minded people, who could bring about collective action in the long run.

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Recently, I observed a group of Malaysians from the peninsula who used Facebook to connect to other social groups in order to highlight the plight of native Sarawakians who are fighting to preserve their native land rights. Remarkably, the most active member of this group was a home-maker!

Although the internet has made a positive contribution to the revival of the nation’s public sphere, it cannot be denied that the political atmosphere since the last general election has also encouraged the opening up of this space. With the state governments of Penang and Selangor under the control of the opposition alliance (Pakatan Rakyat), we have witnessed encouraging signs of the state governments in both states seeking to nurture a more vibrant public sphere.

In the case of the Selangor state government, it tabled a Freedom of Information Bill in July 2010 in the state legislature to make more state information accessible to the people. This is a move in the right direction in contrast to the traditional position taken by the federal government as well as the previous state government, which keep such information locked away – like hoarders who cannot part with what they have amassed even if it is useless.

The state government of Penang, on the other hand, has taken the initiative to create a space for freedom of speech. Emulating the famous Hyde Park Speakers’ Corner, the Penang Speakers’ Square located at Padang Kota Lama, Georgetown, is intended as a space for people to hold gatherings, peaceful demonstrations and various artistic forms of expression.

Ours, not the government’s, responsibility to keep the public sphere vibrant

The laws affecting the public sphere are still in place; nonetheless, more Malaysians are taking to the public sphere as evidenced by the peaceful gatherings in the past couple of years on various issues and the vibrant virtual public sphere, where ordinary Malaysians are flocking to voice out their concerns and opinions. All these hopeful signs point to the revival of a democratic culture that is necessary for a healthy democracy.

More importantly, we need to remember that it is us, ordinary Malaysians, who are responsible for the well-being of democracy in our country. Among the many ways in which we can contribute to the vitality of democracy here is by actively participating in the nation’s public sphere and by demanding that the government repeal those laws that hinder this space from functioning as it should.

It is time for all of us to reclaim the public square as a forum for responsible and civil discussions on the social and political malaise that we are facing rather than allowing it to be deformed and impair the health of our democracy.

Christopher Chong is an Aliran member

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