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Clamping dissent prompts online attacks

 | August 30, 2011

Sweeping sensitive issues under the carpet will only lead to public backlash or mass emigration, warned a local sociologist.

PETALING JAYA: “Well, all things must come to an end, including BN (Barisan Nasional).” This was a comment made by a FMT reader known only as “boniyoniku” on an article entitled “World’s oldest panda dies”.

The article – which had nothing to do whatsoever with local political developments – described how the oldest panda in the world died of natural causes.

A quick glance through FMT’s daily news stories also revealed many a reader’s baffling attempts at connecting unrelated stories with Malaysian politics.

Other comments also appeared to be tinged with personal attacks, with characters being singled out for slamming.

On an article entitled “Najib, Rosmah in court but no interviews”, a reader known only as “anti gay frog” had this to say about former prime minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

“No use to sue Kutty. He just need coverage and glamour. Ibrahim (Ali) katak was the one who didn’t gave Anwar (Ibrahim) floor to explain.”

“Ibrahim was the one who hit the table during the meeting. Obviously he had collaborated with Kutty to expel Anwar. We will sue Kutty and the frog once BN fall. Ibrahim will cry because cant find boys to put his short p***** into boys a*******!!!” the reader wailed.

Monash University professor Phua Kai Lit said that these comments were a sign of public frustration in an environment intolerant of public dissent.

“In the universities in the United States, you have more room to say things that are unpopular, such as sensitive issues like race.”

“There is more space for dissenting or different views, (they’re) more tolerant in that sense, (unlike) Malaysia,” he said.

Traditional channels

The lack of avenues for public criticism, Phua added, often led Malaysians to make their views known in the online world, especially online media websites.

A sociologist by trade, Phua said that locals were not encouraged to do the same in more traditional channels.

“I think we avoid (talking about) certain issues (in public) because we fear getting in trouble with the authorities.”

“We don’t have enough of that (free speech). There is some free speech in the online media. Of course, if the government is totally repressive, they can clamp down on everything, so you do have some space,” he said.

“But it’s not big enough.”

Malaysia has little space for free speech or press freedom. On many occasions, the government has told the public not to rock the boat.

In recent months, the government – as well as other groups – have clamped down on many newspaper outfits and reporters, criticising them for allegedly negative coverage.

One of these was former senior Utusan Malaysia journalist Hata Wahari, who slammed his newspaper for playing up racial rhetoric.

At the time, Hata made the comments as National Union of Journalists (NUJ) president. He was summarily suspended for his comments.

Mass emigration

Malaysia is also ranked at 143rd out of a total of 178 countries, according to the Press Freedom Index.

Phua said that there were disadvantages to the government sweeping sensitive or certain issues under the carpet.

Public backlash and mass emigration were two known effects.

“If you don’t give people space to dissent, then we may have a sudden eruption of anti-social behaviour. On the surface, it seems that people are fine, but suddenly you’ll have this outbreak simply because people are so frustrated.”

“They can also exit, and you can see Malaysians voting with their feet… so many people have left the country (because of this),” he added.

According to a World Bank report on brain drain, more than a million Malaysians are residing overseas. Many have left due to career prospects and social injustice, the report said.

Contrary to popular belief, Phua said that most people were “rational and accommodating” when it came to discussing these issues.

Nevertheless, he said that the right way to go about things was to have a “responsible” free speech.

“So if you say things that are offensive, people can sue you for libel. That should be the proper way, rather than arresting you and throwing you in jail.”

“They should discuss sensitive issues in a responsible way, so that the government knows how the people feel,” he said.


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