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Malaysia’s declining freedom - of speech and belief

Updated On: Jul 27, 2007

As hints that a general election is likely to be called sooner than later, the government is obviously getting a little nervous with the recent controversies over state identity and what the debates in the cyberspace which they have so far no control.

Now the latter is perhaps about to change as the Malaysian authorities threatened to place a noose over netizens who incite racial or religious sensitivities. 

Minister in the Prime Minister's Department Datuk Seri Mohamed Nazri Abdul Aziz warned netizens that if they insulted Islam or the King, the law would be brought down upon them. He said “Even though the government has been tolerant of anti-government positions and criticisms on the Internet, we are very concerned about statements that insult religion and reek of racism,” reported AFP. Laws he said would be used include the Internal Security Act, which allows indefinite detention without trial, the Sedition Act and Section 121b of the Penal Code. Apparently, the government had shown forbearance in the past, but Nazri announced “the time has come for us to take action against them (bloggers who make disparaging statements). We have the right and we will do it. We have been very patient,” quoted AFP.

This severe warning comes during a time when groups are agitated over the issue of whether Malaysiais an Islamic or secular state, whether the National Economic Policy (NEP) is still necessary and if the rights of non-Muslim Malaysians are being eroded following several high profile court cases over religious conversion.  The government’s defence of the country’s constitutional monarchy, race and religion, shows a desire to quell sensitive public commentary at all cost. The laws, if seemingly harsh, are “necessary”. Energy, Water and Communications Minister Datuk Seri Dr Lim Keng Yaik said “We are not interfering with their rights. But if they behave irresponsibly, we will take away their rights. There are laws in this country,” quoted the New Straits Times.

On July 11, Malaysian police cracked down upon the webmaster of “Malaysia Today”, a web portal that has been accused of publishing netizens’ touchy racial comments, insulting the King, and presenting biased viewpoints on Islam. “I think they are very irresponsible and forget that our country has the sensitivities on the Yang di-Pertuan Agong institution, race and religion,” Umno Information Chief Muhammad Muhammad Taib told the Star.

The Malaysian government is certainly testy. In Parliament, Deputy Energy, Water and Communications Minister Datuk Shaziman Abu Mansor proposed that bloggers ought to register with the government. According to the New Straits Times he said “We just want to know the number of bloggers, how many are active, how often they update their websites, and what kind of [information] is posted. It has nothing to do with censoring.” Both the “Malaysia Today” arrest, and Shaziman’s proposal sparked outrage in the blogosphere. According to the Straits Times, it indicates “a regression of Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi's pledge of openness and transparency”. Also, the official crackdown has “sent a signal that the government is willing to act if it comes across postings it does not like in cyberspace,” said the head of Merdeka Centre Mr Ibrahim Suffian.

After DPM Najib’s provocative proclamation of the Malaysia as an “Islamic state”, the mainstream media has already been banned from reporting anything on the secular/religious debate, unless uttered by Najib or PM Abdullah Badawi. Umno Information Chief Muhammad Muhammad Taibalso said there “was no absolute freedom in any country and that Malaysia had its own ways to regulate the freedom, which was founded on the practice of tolerance and mutual respect among the races”, reported Bernama. Criticism would only be tolerated if it was done “fairly, constructively, objectively and factually”, said DPM Najib to media practitioners at the Malaysian Press Institute. “Constructive criticism will help the government overcome its weaknesses, improve inefficient systems and increase accountability while improving its administration,” said Najib, whereas wanton free speech would “get us nowhere”. According to the New Straits Times, Najib argued that journalists needed to “understand the important issues in the right perspectives if they are to make a report, commentary or offer solid views on developments in the country.”

Notwithstanding the government’s containment of public debate, ex-Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamed backed DPM Najib’s “Islamic state” remark and endorsed the controversial National Economic Plan (NEP). According to the BBC, when asked to comment on Najib’s comment, he said “We consider ourselves an Islamic state regardless of whether it is written in the Federal Constitution or not. The reality is (that) we practise Islamic teachings in the administration of this country," said Mahathir. “This is a Muslim country because we follow Muslims teachings and Muslim injunctions…” he said. Mahathir also said that the NEP had no ill effect on Malaysia’s development, since “Malaysia is still the fastest growing developing country in the world. Other countries with no affirmative policy cannot do as well asMalaysia. Why are people questioning the policy?” quoted The Edge Daily.

Tensions are likely to increase as Malaysia debates its state identity, freedom of belief and speech, and particularly with an eye to the upcoming elections.  The latest ruling by the highest court in Malaysia in a case involving the estate of a dead Muslim man would perhaps temper the rising unease amongst non-Muslims.  In a landmark ruling, Judge Abdul Hamid Mohamad, together with Justices Arifin Zakaria and Augustine Paul, held that disputes between a Muslim and non-Muslim on family and religious matters should be settled in a civil court. They also implied that the Federal Court, the Court of Appeal and the High Court – unlike the syariah courts – were of a higher order as they were created by the Constitution.  However, they were also clear in delivering their judgment that on issue of apostasy related to Islamic law, the civil courts could not intervene.

Interestingly, on the issue of religious conversion in Islam, the comments by the official religious adviser to the Egyptian government and grand mufti Ali Gomaa may offer some new perspectives for Muslim countries, including Malaysia, on issue of apostasy.  Egyptian mufti Ali Gomaa said in a posting on a Washington-Newsweek forum picked up by the Egyptian press that Muslims are free to change faith and that their conversion unless detrimental to the foundation of society is something for God to judge and there should be no worldly punishments.  (27 July 2007)

Sources:

Mufti reaffirms his view on Muslims’ freedom of belief (Straits Times, 27 July 2007)

KL Judge: Syariah Courtnot for cases involving non-Muslims (Straits Times, 27 July 2007)

Malaysiaformer PM echoes deputy PM's "Islamic state" claim (BBC, 26 July 2007)

Minister warns bloggers (AFP, 26 July 2007)

Registration of blogs ‘is not the same as censorship’ (NST, 26 July 2007)

Be constructive in criticism, media told (NST, 25 July 2007)

We're a Muslim state, says Dr M; Islamic teachings 'are practised' in running of country (Today Paper, 25 July 2007)

MALAYSIA: Is KL cracking down on cyberspace? (The Straits Times, 25 July 2007)

Cops recording statement by MalaysiaToday's Raja Petra (The Star, 25 July 2007)

Dr Mahathir urges Islamic countries to embrace gold dinar (The Edge Daily, 25 July 2006)

Egypt's Grand Mufti Says Muslims Can Change Faith; 'No Compulsion' In Islam (AHN, 25 July 2007)

No crackdown on bloggers (The Star, 24 July 2007)

Govt Warns Of Tough Action Against Bloggers Who Disparage (Bernama, 24 July 2007)