Crackdown on freedom, symptomatic of failing state?


By Anusha Arumugam

Last week, Malaysiakini’s office was raided by the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) and two computers were confiscated.

The MCMC acted under Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act (CMA) 1998 which gave it the jurisdiction to criminalise any improper use of network facilities or network service that is deemed “obscene, indecent, false, menacing or offensive in character”.

Should we be concerned? Yes. Here is why.

In isolation, one raid on one office of an independent online news portal may seem harmless, but in truth, it is another calculated attack by the government on our freedom of expression and therefore cannot be regarded in isolation.

This year alone, 20 individuals have been arrested under this Act, and six people have been charged. These figures show an alarming 100 per cent increase in the use of this Act from that of last year’s, where 10 individuals were arrested, and three were charged.

Similar to the Sedition Act 1948, the CMA 1998, through its broad definition, arbitrarily limits free speech, and by doing so, shrinks our democratic space.

Yet again, we are faced with an Act that blatantly transgresses Article 10 of the Federal Constitution under which every one of us is guaranteed the right to freedom of speech, assembly and association. But just how much does this violation affect us?

While all fundamental liberties are owed equal protection and importance, freedom of speech carries a greater weightage because it underpins many other freedoms.

Freedom of speech is a vital means to demand the safeguard of our innumerous rights – right to life of dignity, education, freedom of religion or belief, among others.

Hence, if we are being denied our fundamental right of free speech, ensuring that our other rights are protected becomes even more arduous. To quote Amartya Sen, the 1998 Nobel Prize winner in Economic Sciences, “the success of a society is to be evaluated primarily by the substantive freedoms that members of that society enjoy”.

By this barometer, the success of our society is highly questionable.

In fact, in Parlevliet’s Iceberg Theory on violations of human rights leading to a violent conflict, it was identified that abuses of civil and political rights, for example, the curtailment of freedom of speech, arbitrary arrests, intimidation of political opponents, and excessive use of power by the police, are symptoms of a violent conflict.

But greater than these symptoms is the denial of fundamental liberties that is entrenched in the mechanical governance of society, that is, how state institutions operate and how the state functions.

An example would include our government’s policy frameworks that marginalise ethnic minorities from political, economic, and social spheres. Therefore, these sustained denials of fundamental rights breed more visible human rights abuses (like the MCMC’s raid on Malaysiakini) and this, if left unaddressed longer, would eventually lead Malaysia to a state of violent conflict.

Although it may seem lucrative to assume that our economic statuses are unaffected by these violations, Sen had argued otherwise.

In his book Development as Freedom, Sen linked our collective economic wealth to our individual elementary freedoms. Only where members of society are free from economic poverty, political tyranny, cultural authoritarianism, and social deprivation, can the nation as a whole flourish in its development because it is only then when society functions optimally.

For this to happen our political institutions must be inclusive, that is, political power must be distributed broadly and must rest with a plurality of groups.

The opposite of that would be extractive political institutions, like ours, where the power is kept within the hands of narrow elites like Barisan Nasional and connected private interests for them to amass their own fortune at the expense of society’s development. And this, according to Acemoglu and Robinson, is why nations fail.

One raid and two confiscated computers may not seem much, but Malaysia is on her way to becoming a failed state, and that raid is an indication of this.

It is up to us to recognise these inconvenient truths and fight them, or to passively watch our country crumble further.

Oftentimes we may ask ourselves: why go through all this trouble? Because “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing” – Edmund Burke.

Anusha Arumugam is an FMT reader.

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