PETALING JAYA: Rights group Suaram has called on the government to hold a public dialogue or forum to address the controversy over the implementation of khat in vernacular schools.
Suaram project coordinator Dobby Chew said it was worrying that Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad had taken the position that Chinese education group Dong Zong was racist for objecting to the implementation of khat.
This was especially so because Mahathir had said Dong Zong was instigating the people to fight each other, he added.
Yesterday, Mahathir labelled Dong Zong as “racist” after the group launched a petition to oppose the move to introduce khat lessons in the Bahasa Melayu subject in vernacular schools next year.
He said there was a specific law to deal with sedition, following a petition urging the government to ban Dong Zong.
Mahathir said it was up to the police to decide whether or not to outlaw Dong Zong but he warned that Dong Zong would be violating the country’s laws “if it keeps inciting people to fight each other”.
Chew said the government would do well to address concerns raised by Dong Zong and others through open dialogue and not by demonising opponents and silencing them.
“In the context of Dong Zong, PPBM and other groups in the khat issue, they are merely expressing their concerns and beliefs, however irrational it may seem to detractors (both for and against).”
He said if any speech or stand instigated racial violence, it “should be resolved through the established frameworks on addressing hate speech and not arbitrarily silenced because the administration disagrees with the position”.
“The government should be de-escalating the situation and not escalate the conflict and feed the flames along racial lines by making irresponsible remarks like Mahathir just did,” he said.
Similarly, Article 19 Malaysia programme officer Nalini Elumalai said critiques of government policies should be heard in public forums and considered by the authorities in good faith, regardless of their merits.
She said it was the duty of the government to defend its policies against criticism, rather than silence dissenters.
“The prime minister’s threats of legal sanctions against Dong Zong contradicts the promises of the Pakatan Harapan government to uphold freedom of expression and to be more receptive to criticism.”
She said the government should take a more conciliatory approach to the issue and that instead of threatening legal action against Dong Zong, Mahathir should call for a dialogue with groups opposing government policies.
“Threats to ban or prosecute Dong Zong are contrary to Article 10 of the Federal Constitution, which guarantees freedom of expression and association.”
Meanwhile, lawyer Syahredzan Johan said although he did not agree with Dong Zong’s petition and objection to the implementation of khat, he said the fundamental right of any organisation to advance its cause should be respected.
“The prime minister is correct to say that there are laws to deal with those who make statements which cause racial or religious strife, such as Section 505 of the Penal Code.
“However, the use of such laws must be exercised sparingly, and cannot be done on the basis that we find their views objectionable.”