Freedom of expression is as basic a need as food and jobs are for the common people, Mustafa K Anuar writes.
Malaysia’s civil society groups have rightly expressed deep concern over what they consider to be increasing erosion of freedom of expression under the present Perikatan Nasional government as this obviously has serious implications for democracy and civil liberties, as well as the general welfare of Malaysians.
Such transgressions of a basic freedom do not augur well for ordinary Malaysians who are currently under assault on many fronts, particularly health in the face of the coronavirus pandemic and finance as the battered economy takes its toll on their livelihoods.
To be sure, it is a time when the socioeconomic hardship of the common people requires the full attention, care and appropriate actions of the powers tha be, and this can only be effectively achieved if public feedback on government policies and measures is taken in good faith.
There may be shortcomings, say, in the way the government distributes assistance of various forms to the needy in these trying times, or it may have allocated insufficient funds to a particular region in the federation for healthcare purposes – or, for that matter, if violations of the pandemic standard operating procedures by certain politicians expose ordinary people who were in contact with them to health risks.
Critical comments and suggestions on such matters are not only necessary, but also expected of right-thinking and concerned citizens.
In another instance, the Kelantan government has recently increased the allowances of state assembly members and senior members of the state government by between RM3,000 and RM5,000 per month amid the pandemic and economic challenges faced by ordinary Malaysians, particularly Kelantanese.
Would public criticism against this move be deemed offensive and uncalled for, especially when the state budget for next year runs into an estimated deficit of RM66m? Surely, one would ponder, prudent spending should be a priority for the Kelantan leadership in a state whose water supply, among others, is still problematic after all these years.
The right to express themselves is essential for citizens, especially when a perceived wrong needs to be righted for the common good. Their grievances should be freely channelled into the public domain through the media for public knowledge and consumption.
In other words, the government of the day must be held accountable if and when it strays away from its promised commitment to promote and protect the interests of the people and the nation as a whole.
This assertion is premised on the firm belief that men and women, especially those in power, are not infallible. Thus, it stands to reason, they should be subjected to public scrutiny, especially when government policies are driven by public funds, thus, making them accountable to the people.
Conversely, to contend that ruling politicians should be insulated from or cushioned from public scrutiny and criticism would be to expose our country to the risk of stepping on the slippery slope of authoritarianism, the extreme form of which is dictatorship.
It, therefore, goes against democratic principles when criticism of the present political leadership is criminalised, as exemplified by the recent questioning by the authorities of certain politicians and others who were critical of the present administration.
That this is a perennial problem associated with successive governments since the country’s independence doesn’t lend legitimacy to the present government’s curtailment of freedom of expression. If anything, it is most crucial and morally incumbent upon civil society to maintain constant vigilance.
Freedom of expression, as well as media freedom, goes a long way towards ensuring that the government of the day remains transparent and accountable to the ordinary people.
Such freedom is as basic a need as food and jobs are for the common people.