Freedom of Political Speech and Social Responsibility in Malaysia

THE CORE IDEA OF freedom of speech is the freedom to express and communicate ideas and thoughts without fear of the consequences. In political contexts, such freedom includes the freedom of the press, the right to peaceable assembly, the right to petition the government for redress of grievances, the right of free association and open access to public information. However, the legitimate extent of freedom of speech and what are good grounds for restricting it are highly controversial issues, especially when other key values are threatened, and when different cultures confront each other.

For instance on September 30, 2005, the daily newspaper Jyllands-Posten (Th e Jutland Post) published a piece entitled “Muhammeds ansigt” (The face of Muhammad). The article consisted of 12 cartoons (of which only some depicted Muhammad) and three of them were illustrated by Jyllands- Posten’s own staff , including the bomb and niqaab cartoons. Supporters of the cartoons argued that they illustrated an important issue in a period of Islamic terrorism and that their publication is a legitimate exercise of the right of free speech and self-conscious refusal to exercise self-censorship in the face of violent threats. In response, Danish Muslim organisations publicly protested about the cartoons and intentionally promulgated knowledge of Jyllands-Posten’s publication, thereby igniting a near worldwide controversy. As it grew, examples of the cartoons were reprinted in newspapers in more than 50 other countries, which led to numerous death threats, attempted murder, bounties placed upon the heads of the cartoonists by Islamic leaders, numerous protests – both peaceful and violent, and some riots, particularly in the Muslim world. Critics of the cartoons described them as “Islamophobic” or racist, and argued that they were gratuitously offensive to people of the Muslim faith, intended to humiliate a Danish minority, and another insensitive manifestation of ignorance about the history of western imperialism.

This is but one example of the many difficulties to which the freedom of speech can give rise. These difficulties are likely to be especially serious in multicultural and multi-religious societies such as Malaysia. In such contexts there is a need to weigh the importance of freedom of political speech for an effective democracy against the need to maintain social order and the conditions of political civility that are also essential to democratic dialogue. This is the challenge that Dr Azizuddin addresses in his ambitious new book.

Dr Azizuddin argues that freedom of political speech in Malaysia has too often been sacrificed for inappropriate political purposes, to protect the government and leading politicians from legitimate criticism and being held properly accountable for their actions, even though the right to freedom of political speech is notionally protected by the Malaysia constitution. However, he does not think that the answer lies in supporting a near absolute primacy aff orded to freedom of political speech as, for example, in the US Constitution. Instead, through his theory of social responsibility he seeks to articulate an approach to freedom of political speech that allows political criticism, dissent and opposition, but also insists on respect for religious and cultural differences and the conditions of civility. He discusses the strengths and weaknesses of both liberal arguments and the Asian values thesis, in developing his own account of how and why freedom of political speech is really important. He then sketches some implications of his argument for Malaysian political practice, suggesting some specific reforms to enhance the openness of Malaysian politics.

In this book, Dr Azizuddin has made a major contribution to thinking about the practice of freedom of political speech in the Malaysian context. His theory of social responsibility is a bold attempt to do justice to the legitimate criticism of the Malaysian government that it is too ready to restrict freedom of speech to protect its own political dominance and to the legitimate claims of the government that the unrestricted exercise of freedom of political speech cannot be allowed to undermine social cohesion and national prosperity, and this is a book that should engage everyone interested in enhancing the democratic culture of Malaysia.

John Horton is a professor of Politics at the School of Politics, International Relations & Philosophy (spire), Keele University, uk.

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