Thursday, 23 October 2014

Rudeness Should Not be a Crime

Sin Chew Jit Poh
24 October 2014

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There is a stereotype about Malaysians that says we are a very polite people. I am not sure how true this is. Maybe once upon a time this was a reality, but nowadays I don’t see much politeness in my day to day life here in the capital city. Perhaps it is because I live in a big city that I feel this way. Maybe in the smaller towns, people are still polite to one another and treat one another with civility and friendliness.
 
Having said that neither are we especially rude. It happens of course, but quite rarely, to the point that when it does occur it feels rather jarring. Generally speaking we don’t see people shouting at each other. Of course on the internet people can be very rude. Also you get examples of extremely rude people in political settings, like at the anti-sedition protest in Penang recently which was broken up by a bunch of extremely uncouth thugs.
 
Rudeness is unpleasant of course, but the question I want to ask here is should it be illegal? I am speaking specifically about Wong Hoi Cheng and M Krishnan, who both have incurred the wrath of the authorities as a result of their “rude” actions.
 
Wong had likened the Inspector General of Police to a Nazi military commander and Krishnan had posed for a photo holding his slipper against a picture of the Prime Minister.  Both actions were done apparently as an angry action to the police arresting scores of Penang Voluntary Patrol Unit and the rising cost of living respectively.
 
Krishnan was arrested and detained for a few days but as yet has not been charged. Wong has been charged under section 504 of the Penal Code. It is possible that Krishnan may be charged with the same section. If we look at section 504 it says:
 


“Whoever intentionally insults, and thereby gives provocation to any person, intending or knowing it to be likely that such provocation will cause him to break the public peace, or to commit any other offence, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years, or with fine, or with both.”



Looking at this section, insulting someone can be a crime but it seems that the insult has to fulfil two components for it to be an offence. First is the insult itself and secondly that the insult will result in some sort of breach of peace or any other offence.  
 
On the face of it, I don’t see how Wong’s statement can fulfil the second component. But of course ultimately that is for the court to decide. The question remains however as to why the police have decided to use their resources to charge him. Seriously, was what he said going to cause a breach in public order or result in other crimes?
 
I think the law was designed for situations where a person insults another person to the point that a fight ensues. I am not sure it is meant to protect public figures from rude comments from people who are angry at how you do your duty.
 
Now perhaps the IGP and the PM were very upset by the acts of these two men. Perhaps they are sensitive people and it hurt them badly. Perhaps, I don’t know, but being the object of anger and the occasional rudeness is the price one pays when holding high public office. Sure it is not nice and sure it is probably not in line with our culture, so sure these men can be scolded and told off by their own fellow Malaysians, but it is not correct for the law to be used to punish them.
 
This would mean that the law is used in a manner to protect the powerful from criticism. And criticism comes in many forms, including insults. It’s not nice, but then if you are not tough enough to take it, perhaps you shouldn’t be in public office.
 
Anyway, since the police are so keen on criminalising insults, perhaps they should investigate all those people who have been insulting Syed Azmi Alhabsi. Syed Azmi recently organised an event where people, including Muslims are encouraged to touch dogs in order to get over their prejudices against the animals. Quite a sweet thing to do I think, but not everyone shares this view.
 
Syed Azmi has been insulted vehemently by some angry Muslims and these insults have also been followed by calls of inflicting violence, even death on the poor chap. Surely this clearly falls under section 504 of the Penal Code. It would be interesting to see what the cops do.
 

Wednesday, 22 October 2014

Protecting the right to speak

Brave New World (The Star)
15 October 2014

When you allow people to express themselves peacefully and when you ensure one group does not harass another group, what you would be achieving in the long term is a peaceful society.

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LAST Sunday a group of people gathered at the Speakers Corner in Penang to protest against the Sedition Act. They did not get very far because a bunch of, now how shall I put this politely, unruly humans shouted abuse at them and harassed them to the point where it was impossible to continue.
Now I think these fellows who wanted to stop the gathering have just as much right as anyone else to voice their opinion. Apparently, they will defend the Sedition Act till their dying breath.
What a wonderfully dedicated lot of humans they are; so very committed, so very brave. Maybe they should get a medal.
However, I would like to point out a small point regarding the right to assemble and to speak.
This is not meant for those courageous men who so fearlessly chased away a couple of tourists from Speakers Corner. I am sure their craniums are already full to overflowing with whatever it is they like to put in there and I doubt there is any room in that space between their heroic ears for any new ideas.
No, this message is for the police. I want them to know about certain international standards regarding protests and counter-protests. I am using international standards because I am certain our men and women in blue would like to be an international-standard police force. Surely they want to be seen as one of the best police services in the world.
Anyway, back to the lesson. Everyone has the right to assemble and speak their mind on issues they think are important.
Conversely, those who dislike their point of view also have a right to assemble and speak their minds.
The job of the police, nay, the duty of the police, is to allow both groups the space with which to express them.
However, when you have competing groups, the blood might rise a bit higher than normal and thus, there could be a possibility of unpleasant clashes.
This is why it is the police’s job, nay, duty, to ensure the groups are kept separate.
In this way, everybody’s right to expression is upheld.
It is not the police force’s job to pick sides. It is not their job to allow one group to chase another one away.
In fact, it is the antithesis of what they are supposed to do.
Now ideally I would like to have a police force which truly appreciates the values of a democratic country.
It would be wonderful beyond belief if they understand that when they protect the citizen’s right to speak, what they are in truth protecting is the very essence of our independent nation – that is to say, a nation built upon the promise of civil liberties, democracy and the rule of law.
However, if this is too abstract a concept to be passed on, allow me to make another argument.
When you allow people to express themselves peacefully and when you ensure one group does not harass another group, what you would be achieving in the long term is a peaceful society.
Let me explain. If I am going to organise a protest and I know there will be a bunch of unruly humans who will try to break my gathering up, I could do one or two things.
Firstly, trust the police to keep us apart.
Or secondly, gather a group of people to confront the unruly humans. The second option could very easily lead to fisticuffs and a whole lot of overweight men wheezing for breath.
Wouldn’t it be better if the cops were to just do their duty and prevent such things from happening?
After all, they are always going on about how important peace and security is.
Besides, wheezing fat men are most unsightly.
By the way, in case the police think it is better not to let people gather at all, may I point out two things? Firstly, it is our right to gather and to express ourselves.
And secondly, if you don’t allow people to speak peacefully and if they get frustrated at the suppression of their rights, that is when people turn to unlawful means to get their message across.
Therefore, no matter how you look at it, if the police of Malaysia are truly concerned about peace, then they have to get their act together and start behaving according to international standards of respecting everybody’s right to express themselves.
Here ends the lesson.

Wednesday, 8 October 2014

Vernacular Education

Sin Chew Jit Poh
9 October 2014

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Every now and then some person or other will say that vernacular schools should be banned. Ostensibly the reason given is that they somehow breed disunity, primarily because vernacular schools generally cater to children of one ethnic group. Hence Chinese students go to Mandarin schools; Indian children go to Tamil schools and so on and so forth.
 
There is an assumption that this division of children based on ethnic groupings from an early age is not conducive to national unity. There are some subtleties that this argument does not take into account. For example mandarin schools need not be mono-ethnic as more and more non-Chinese parents are sending their children to such schools. I am uncertain about the ethnic composition of Tamil schools.
 
Secondly is whether such segregation is truly the reason for any disunity in the country? This would require a much more thorough study being conducted based on the attitudes and perceptions of graduates from vernacular and national schools. Another point that is missed out is the existence of Islamic religious schools. These schools are also generally mono-ethnic in their make-up. Are they also to be blamed for any disunity in the country?
 
Before we go on to other pragmatic considerations, let’s look at what the law says. The Constitution states in Article 152 that “The national language shall be the Malay language provided that no person shall be prohibited or prevented from using (otherwise than for official purposes), or from teaching and learning, any other language and nothing in this Clause shall prejudice the right of the Federal Government or of any State Government to preserve and sustain the use and study of the language of any other community in the Federation.”
 
In other words the existence of vernacular schools is protected by Article 152 of the Constitution just as affirmative action for Malays and Natives of Sabah and Sarawak are allowed for under Article 153. It is ironic that those who challenge the continuation of vernacular schools are usually the very same people who would defend Article 153 to the nth degree. Why defend one aspect of the Constitution and not another I wonder?
 
Anyway, my own personal view is that ideally all children went to the same type of school. It would be great if those schools also had excellent classes on mother tongue education depending on its situation (Sabah schools might want classes on Kadazan for example) and if the general quality of teaching is top class. But at the end of the day, I think it is healthier if children regardless of ethnicity or class went to school together.
 
Why do I mention class? That is because it is not just vernacular schools and religious schools which are the options open to parents. There are also now a fast growing number of private and international schools and these are only an option to people from the wealthier classes of the community. This is also a form of segregation where wealthy children will be kept in a bubble far from the reality of the lives of the vast majority of Malaysians. This too can be unhealthy.
 
Which leads to my final question; why do parents send their children to the schools that they choose? What are the criteria for the choices made? I doubt that there are many parents who will say it is because they don’t want their children to have a feeling of unity with their fellow Malaysians. The answer would in all likelihood be that they send their children to schools where they thing their offspring will get the best education.
 
Therein lies the ultimate answer. If you want young Malaysians to go to national schools then you better make sure that those schools are staffed by competent and inclusive minded teachers; are secular in their approach (so that children of differing faiths all feel comfortable there); and ultimately that they provide an excellent education. Parents want what is best for their child. Questions of unity are not one of those considerations when choosing a school. Excellence is. Keep that in mind the next time talk of national schools versus any other type of schools crop up.
 

Tuesday, 30 September 2014

An identity crisis for PAS

Brave New World (The Star)
1 October 2014

This could be merely a stage in their development, and it is affecting not just them, but also their partnership with DAP and PKR and ultimately the voter.

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BREAKING up is hard to do. Or so Neil Sedaka would have us believe.
Looking at what is happening with Pakatan Rakyat it seems that this classic Sixties pop song should be their soundtrack.
Or perhaps we should look to music that is a bit more rock, something a bit harder. How about “Should I stay or should I go”, by the Clash?
Yes, I think the Clash is more fitting.
This is because it does not seem clear at all whether PAS will stay on in Pakatan or go their own way (hey, that is a Fleetwood Mac song).
As a party, they are giving out such mixed signals that they seem to have more identities than David Bowie in his Ziggy Stardust phase.
Now it is not uncommon for people or organisations to go through some sort of identity crisis.
In fact it may be a good thing, an evolution from one thing to another.
The Beatles were still very much the Beatles throughout their career but there is a huge difference between the long-haired messiahs of the White Album and the cherry mop tops of Please Please Me. (Crikey, once I start on this music thing, I can’t seem to stop).
So it is the same with PAS.
It is not such a big deal that they seem to be suffering from an institutional dissociative identity disorder; it could be seen as merely a stage in their development.
Unfortunately their condition is affecting not just them, but also their partnership with DAP and PKR and ultimately the ordinary voter.
On the one hand, you have some PAS leaders saying the future with Pakatan is strong and that the party should be more progressive; and on the other hand we have a party strongman saying that their partners in Pakatan are little more than bullies and others lamenting the loss of their “core values” and that perhaps it is best for PAS to go it alone.
Basically, what is happening is the tension between the “progressives” and “conservatives” bubbling up to the surface.
I suppose there was a certain naiveté amongst some people (myself included) regarding the character of PAS.
Over the last eight years or so, there was a belief that PAS had changed. It was modernist and inclusive, and had moved away from its insular and traditionalist past.
This view was encouraged by certain individual PAS leaders whose eloquence and forward-thinking attitudes made one believe that there were more similarities between PAS and their partners than differences.
Hence a viable coalition opposition (and perhaps a viable new Federal Government) was a real possibility.
How exciting it all seemed.
Now of course we see that the conservative voices in PAS were not being made redundant by the “new” PAS; instead they were merely keeping quiet.
They were always there; we just chose to ignore them.
I wonder if their Pakatan partners also chose to ignore them.
If this is the case, then they can’t do that any more.
The future of the coalition is at stake and they really need to get together and see if they can truly work with one another and to provide the voters with that seductive “government in waiting” that they proffered just last year.
PKR and DAP can help this process by not being so antagonistic to their partner.
At least while they are still ostensibly partners.
The same goes for PAS.
The infighting that is going on, made more lurid with colourful language like “the beheading” of a PAS Penang councillor, does nothing for reasoned discussion between the political parties, neither does it engender any sort of confidence amongst the people.
What their political fortunes would be if there is a split remains to be seen.
I would guess it would make all of the parties suffer.
The loss (with a bigger majority for Brisan Nasional) at the latest by-election seems to suggest this is so.
Just which party risks losing more is hard to say, but without a doubt the biggest winner if Pakatan breaks up would be Barisan.
So they really need to get their act together and make their minds up one way or the other whether they should stay as a team or break up.
But if they do decide to stick with it, there is one question that needs to be first answered and that is, to paraphrase Eminem, “Will the real P.A.S. please stand up, please stand up, please stand up”.

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

PAS and Pakatan Rakyat

Sin Chew Jit Poh
24 September 2014

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It looks like the Selangor crisis has come to an end; at least for the moment. There are many constitutional issues that can be raised about the appointment of Azmin Ali as the new Menteri Besar, but I do not want to go into that here.

Instead I wish to discuss the impasse between PAS and their partners PKR and DAP which appears to have been settled for now. PAS did not want Wan Azizah to be MB, and PKR has grudgingly accepted Azmin Ali as the new MB. Therefore there is nothing to fight and argue about anymore. However, any peace between the component parties of Pakatan Rakyat is fragile at best. Sure things look like they have calmed down, but fundamental core issues have not been settled.

The first amongst this is the sheer venom that the PAS President has poured out during the recently concluded PAS Muktamah. His anger at the two PAS Selangor state assemblymen who decided to respect the agreement between the PR partners and go with PKR’s choice of MB (Wan Azizah) was far from statesman like. It not only denigrates the two individuals but it also poured scorn on the partners of PAS.

Which leads to the question, are they going to be partners for much longer? After all it is not just the PAS president who seems to be growing colder towards this alliance. There are strong forces within PAS, primarily from the more conservative elements of the party that seem to be in the same frame of mind.

I do not pretend to be an expert on PAS internal affairs. I am not a member and therefore this opinion is purely that of an outsider’s. In the last two general elections PAS has won much support from citizens who would not traditionally be considered PAS supporters. In fact it is because of this support that caused the delineation of state seats in Kedah to backfire on the ruling party in 2008.

The changing of electoral boundaries to make more areas in Kedah “mixed” was intended to dilute the number of Malay voters in several Kedah constituencies. The thinking behind this is that PAS only gets their support from Malays. What a shock it must have been to see that those same non-Malay voters who were thought to be anti PAS voting for the Islamist party in great numbers to the point that the state government fell into PAS control.

This support could partly be explained by the electorate wanting change, and they would vote for anyone as long as it was not BN. There is some truth to that, but it should also not be forgotten that PAS as a party has become more palatable to their non-traditional supporters in the past few years.

The moderate and pragmatic approach of their more progressive members made many think that there are more similarities than differences between PAS, DAP and PKR. Thus a workable government in waiting was there for the taking. The progressives in PAS moved away from the rhetoric normally associated with PAS and spoke instead of common ground, compromise and co-operation. They were more flexible in their ideology and much more inclusive. To the extent that you had PAS Supporters Clubs popping up all over the country consisting of non-Muslims who because of their religion could not join PAS proper.

This aspect of PAS support ought not to be forgotten. If the party moves away from this line of thinking and if they do not evolve into an entity which can appeal to a broader support base, whatever gains made in the past two elections may be lost. The question for PAS therefore is one of identity. If they are unhappy with the way things are and if they wish to return to a more hard-line approach to issues of faith and governance, which may well lead to the breaking up of the PR, then they must be prepared for a radical shift in their political fortunes.

 

 

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Freedom, with the right limitations

Brave New World (The Star)
17 September 2014

There is a need for some laws and controls over people who would defame others or call for unacceptable things, like genocide.

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IN the past few weeks there has been a lot of discussion, indeed in some cases one might say uproar, over the use of the Sedition Act.
I have no wish to talk about the Act itself because it has been done to death in recent times. Furthermore, I am currently rather intimately involved with the Act as I was charged under it earlier this month.
Instead, I would like to go back to the fundamental issue here, which is freedom of expression. Clearly the Sedition Act curbs freedom of expression. Is this a bad thing? Well, not necessarily.
You see, despite what some quarters might believe, no one in his right mind would want absolute freedom of expression. That would be ludicrous.
However, before we begin to discuss what sort of restrictions on expression there should be, let us first examine our attitudes towards this particular freedom itself.
Naturally I can’t speak for anyone else, so this is a purely personal take. I think that the ideal is absolute freedom.
In other words, absolute freedom of expression is the best thing to have. Unfortunately, we all know that in this world, reason and ­honesty are sometimes in short supply.
Therefore, there is clearly a need for some sort of laws and controls over people who would defame others or call for unacceptable things, like genocide.
However, when thinking about the controls and laws you want to impose, a person’s fundamental belief system comes into play.
Hence, if you are like me and believe that total freedom is the ideal, then any restriction would be most carefully thought out and applied in order to disturb the ideal as little as possible.
Thus, freedom of expression itself is to be protected as much as possible and any limitation must infringe as little as possible on said freedom.
There is no need to defend freedom of expression because it is a given, conversely one has to defend the need for laws that curb those freedoms.
Now, if you don’t believe that freedom is the ideal, then things would look very different indeed.
Because there is no inherent appreciation of freedom, one would make laws that curb those freedoms to whatever extent one thinks is necessary for one’s own interest.
Perversely, the laws restricting said freedoms become the given and freedom of expression has to be justified.
This is most undesirable because of all the civil and political rights that exist, freedom of expression is arguably the most important. Well, to be honest, in my point of view, it is the most important right of all.
So many other rights are intimately linked to freedom of expression, such as assembly, association, faith and the right to have a democratically elected government.
Some people criticise freedom of expression as being an esoteric thing, something that bothers the so-called intelligentsia and not the ordinary man on the street. After all, how does speaking one’s mind put food on the table?
I would argue against such an idea. It is true that freedom of expression won’t feed the poor in a direct manner but, without it, how on earth can we expose poor policies that perpetuate poverty, or corrupt practices that take public money away from doing good and into the ­pockets of the dishonest, or wasteful ineffi­ciency?
To conclude, I reiterate the value of freedom of expression and its importance in making society a better place free from tyrants and despots.
But, what about the limitations that I mentioned earlier? What sort of control should there be?
I would suggest that any laws that curb freedom to express oneself ought to be limited to matters such as incitement to violence, civil defamation and perhaps hate speech.
But whatever law one wants to create, great care must be taken in its drafting; great effort must be made in allowing as much open debate as possible and underlying it all the ultimate ideal of absolute freedom must always be kept in mind.
Of course any law, no matter how well drafted, would be an absolute mockery of justice if it is applied in an unequal manner, so the enforcement of the law must also be unpreju­diced.
Now being the proponent of free speech is not an easy thing because one has to respect the right of everyone to express themselves, even those who may vehemently disagree with one.
So I shall end this column by saying, feel free to criticise what I have just said. After all, it’s your right.

Friday, 12 September 2014

Academic Freedom

Sin Chew Jit Poh
12 September 2014

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“To impose any straightjacket upon the intellectual leaders in our colleges and universities would imperil the future of the nation. No field of education is so thoroughly comprehended by man that new discoveries cannot yet be made. Particularly is that true in the social sciences where few, if any, principles are accepted as absolute”.
Chief Justice Earl Warren (1957)


This quote is part of a judgment made by Chief Justice Warren of the United States Supreme Court in a case that dealt with academic freedom. I think it perfectly encapsulates the value of academic freedom and the need to protect it.

In short it states that we need academic freedom in order for a nation to develop properly. Ideas need to be expressed freely and debated in order for the best solutions to be found. In some countries, like Indonesia, academic freedom is considered so important that it is actually protected specifically by law.

But what exactly is academic freedom? It is of course closely related to the freedom of expression. The difference is of course is that it is specifically referring to the academic context. Therefore it would mean that a n academic should have the freedom to research, publish and teach freely.

“Freely” does not mean absolute freedom of course. There will be limitations to academic freedom and the main (and some would argue the only) limitation has to be that of academic rigour. What is meant by academic rigour is that whatever an academic says, or publishes must be backed by sound research and reasoning.

If an academic’s work is found to be lacking either through poor research methodology, poor reasoning or the lack of academic honesty (for example through plagiarising), then his or her “punishment” will be the harsh criticism by their peers leading to a loss of credibility and respect. This in turn could lead to practical consequences such as their career suffering.

Up till now, the discussion has been about freedom strictly within the context of universities. But what about the role of academic freedom outside the university? Can the principles of academic freedom still apply?

I would argue that if an academic is speaking outside the university context (that is to say outside academic conferences, lectures and publications); the principle of academic freedom ought to still apply if he or she is speaking within their own field of expertise.

The reason I say this is because if academia is to free itself from the accusations of living in an ivory tower, then they have to somehow make their work and their expertise relevant to the public at large. A common term for such people is that they become public intellectuals.

By examining current affairs and matters of general concern, and applying their own expert take on the matter, an academic would be helping by providing ideas and thoughts on how to improve the situation. In this way the knowledge held will be put to good practical use for the sake of the community at large.

When an academic moves out from the university and into the public sphere, putting forward ideas that are from their research work and expertise, they are in fact making academia more relevant to the community. And as such academic freedom should also apply in public discourse.