Thoughts on dissent in a democracy

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The challenge for the new government is to nurture a healthy culture of dissent which is guided by principles of non-violence and civility, writes Prema Devaraj.

As part of a broader set of freedoms — expression, association, assembly and so on — the freedom to dissent is a crucial element in a democracy.

It is a way for people to provide feedback, different perspectives, alternative solutions as well as a way to keep the government in check. Every person should have the right to dissent in an informed and reasonable manner, without fear of victimisation or retaliation.

The use of dissent can be seen in its creation of positive change. Examples include women having the right to vote or ending colonial rule.

In Malaysia, dissent has resulted in legislation to better protect the rights of its people eg the Domestic Violence Act or the abolition of the Internal Security Act and more recently a dramatic change in government. None of these changes would have happened if people had not voiced their dissent in an organised and sustained manner.

In a democracy, there will always be dissenting voices as society is made up of a spectrum of people with a myriad of views and needs, not all of which may be in line with government policy and plans.

In Malaysia this includes, among other things, the rights of lower-income groups to affordable housing and a living wage, the rights of indigenous peoples to their land and livelihood, the treatment of migrant workers and refugees and the plight of the stateless. There are also issues pertaining to governance and related legislation which need to be addressed.

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But dissent is not always welcomed and often comes at cost. Dissenters have often been ignored, labelled (eg unreasonable, unpatriotic, saboteurs of development), investigated, arrested or charged with a crime.

Over the last 60 years we have witnessed the use of a variety of laws to silence critics including the Internal Security Act, the Officials Secrets Act and more recently the Sedition Act and the Communications and Multimedia Act.

Although the space for dissent has definitely increased over time, it cannot be taken for granted. It still has to be fought for especially when the government, though now less authoritarian than before, has vested interests to protect.

There is also the ‘misuse’ of dissent. This is when people use the space and the right to dissent as given in a democracy to silence the views and the expression of such views of others or to detract from issues being raised.

This misuse of dissent is sometimes accompanied with hate speech that is often informed by the politicisation of ethnicity and religion as well as physical threats of violence.  Meetings or gatherings have been disrupted under the guise of the right to dissent.

Although people have a right to hold and express opposing views, this right should never lead to the violation of the rights of others (ie stopping others from having or expressing their views) or to harmful or inhumane actions.

The challenge for the new government is to nurture a healthy culture of dissent which is guided by principles of non-violence and civility. Different viewpoints, unpalatable as they may be, must be given the space to be expressed and also evaluated against principles of democracy, good governance and human rights.

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This article was first published in The Edge.

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