Recently, an international school invited the wrath of Primary Industries Minister Teresa Kok over a student presentation on the environmental damage caused by the palm oil industry.
I think both the minister and the school have the best intentions. The episode offers a lesson on “freedom of expression” in the “New Malaysia”.
Instilling an interest in students on the environment is a noble attempt and fulfils the requirements of the Sustainable Development Goals.
However, it is not a one-dimensional perspective. By saying that palm oil plantations are bad because they destroy the forest and its biodiversity, we are looking at the matter from a single perspective without taking into account the severe economic impact of smallholders and Malaysians who depend on this commodity.
True learning is not by repetition. It occurs when one takes information and reinterprets it in the light of certain unique contexts.
The palm oil industry in Malaysia has suffered from the unfair perspectives of those who may have agendas other than saving our forests.
I don’t like quoting Dr Mahathir Mohamad, but I remember him questioning the West for lecturing the Third World about deforestation when they themselves had destroyed their environment.
Teachers should be more critical and sensitive to Malaysia’s plight while at the same time supporting the protection of our forests.
Our hardworking minister is trying her level best to battle the forces of “first world morality”. Her message to the school came off like a headmaster’s stern rebuke, setting off activists who criticised her for trying to stifle freedom of speech.
I think what the minister really meant was the need for responsible teaching and critical presentation.
She could have mentioned that although she agrees on the issue of deforestation, her ministry is trying its best to solve what is an inherited problem.
Twenty years from now, the palm oil industry could exist side by side with our forest conservation efforts. Right now, we are in damage control mode and the country must unite in efforts to remedy the situation until an equitable balance is achieved between forest conservation and economic income.
Those who speak of freedom of speech must understand that this concept comes with conditions.
Yes, the constitution guarantees freedom of speech, but we must apply our manners and distinguish responsible freedom from irresponsible freedom.
We have been many times disgusted by irresponsible free speech that pits communities against each other.
Until most educated citizens understand what responsible freedom of speech is, we will have to keep on conducting damage control.
The Malay saying goes, “Terlajak perahu boleh diundur, terlajak kata buruk padahnya”, which means that once something has been spoken, you cannot take it back.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.