Allah controversy: Why Mill and Orwell matter

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Christopher Chong reflects on the Allah judgment and its implications for the political health of the nation.

George-Orwell-1984

The Court of Appeal decision to uphold the ban by the government on the use of the word “Allah” from the Herald publication is a sad day in the history of the nation.

No, I’m not going to touch on the merits of the judgment or why it’s an injustice to Christians who use Bahasa in their worship. There are many who have written (or are writing) on both these issues right now. What I want to do here is to look at the larger picture of this decision on the political health of our nation with the help of the J S Mill (the nineteenth century English philosopher) and George Orwell (the English writer).

Mill, in his highly influential book On Liberty noted that there is a historical “struggle between authority and liberty”. People, he goes on to say, need to be on guard against a tyrannical government. The only way to do so is by ensuring the liberty of its citizens.

The details of his proposed safeguards need not concern us here. What is of interest to us is his view that the worse tyranny is that of the “tyranny of the majority” where the prevailing opinion of the majority becomes the basis of all rules of conduct in society. The problem, as Mill rightly pointed out, is that the majority opinion may not be the correct one. 

The message that the Court of Appeal is sending out is that the “sensitivity” of the majority must be safeguarded by the government even at the cost of suppressing the rights of the minority. Apart from the fact that no such “sensitivity” has been transgressed, this judgment is setting a dangerous precedent that this country will be ruled by “the tyranny of the majority”.

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By so doing, it’ll make the minority suspicious that their rights will always be sacrificed on the altar of the majority whenever the latter is of the opinion that theirs alone is the correct view. If we can’t even look at each other without mutual suspicion, then how can we even talk about creating a vibrant democratic in a pluralistic society which we so loudly proclaim as the goal of our nation-building process. 

If there is one thing the novelist George Orwell taught me in his novel 1984, it is the power of language. In the novel, he painted a terrifying picture of the future where a totalitarian government maintained a tight grip over the lives of its citizens. One of the ways which control is achieved is through the use of language. By manipulating meanings, the government was able to restrict what an individual can think to ensure docility.

Now I’m not suggesting that our government is the same as that painted by Orwell. But when we allow the government to prohibit what words we can use, is this not the first step towards directing what can or cannot be thought about? Is this not a form of thought control?

Again a vibrant democracy requires a diversity of opinions based on the use of language. Can we allow the government to tell us what we can or cannot say using the national language? Is the right to use the national language not enshrined in the Federal Constitution? Are we not to love our national language? But if we are now being told we cannot use certain words, is this not the same as being told that the patrimony of the national language is restricted to the majority?

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For me, the judgment of the Court of Appeal does not augur well for the nation because it seeks to diminish the vision of our beloved founding father, Tunku Abdul Rahman, who wanted to see a nation united despite the diversity of its people. As Tunku once said, “Let us all be reminded that all Malaysians would live together as members of one big family”.

I cry for my beloved nation as the judgment handed down by the Court of Appeal goes against the vision of the Tunku.

Christopher Chong Eu Choong is an Aliran executive committee member.

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