New threats to new freedom
Scene: Coffee House, Corus Hotel, KL.
Is there freedom in Malaysia?
Wow, wow. What a strange question, Mohan?
Certainly there is freedom. It is a free
country. Everyone is free - of course within the
bounds of our laws and our national
And of course we have to respect the cultures,
customs and traditions of the various ethnic
groups that make up this nation. For instance we
don't wear shoes when we enter the homes of some
So other than the laws and the need to respect
the customs and traditions of the various
groups, we are free. That's what you are saying.
Yes. In fact the feeling of being more free is
very apparent now. I suppose many people have
got this feeling ever since Datuk Seri Abdullah
Ahmad Badawi became prime minister. He is
encouraging more openness and greater freedom.
And transparency, of course.
Yes, I agree. Now you Azman, you and your
newspaper people mustn't go around spreading the
foreign concept of freedom and democracy.
You think so, ah?
Yes lah. Please don't go around misinterpreting
Abdullah's idea of freedom and confuse it with
some foreign concept.
I didn't know lah. Usually foreign is an
euphemism for Western. You know how our
officials are. When they don't want to say
Western they say foreign.
Does freedom mean one thing in Malaysia and
another thing in Mongolia? And is it some
strange animal in India and another strange
creature in Britain? Cikgu?
I believe freedom is the same everywhere. It is
a universal concept. But how much each person in
the world has of it depends on how much his
country's laws proscribe it or limit it.
So there is such a thing as Malaysian freedom
Maybe. But maybe it is not so much the meaning
but the amount. So Malaysian freedom means the
amount of it that we have. Freedom means the
same thing everywhere.
I agree. So Malaysian freedom is really the
amount of it that we have after its proscription
by the ISA, the OSA, the Sedition Act, the
Official Secrets Act and a host of other laws.
So when someone accused you of practising
freedom the way the foreigners do, it means that
you have ignored those laws.
I don't know. We ignore those laws at our own
peril. But doesn't greater freedom under
Abdullah mean that we have some leeway?
What about democracy?
Whether you spell it demokrasi or democracy, it
is a foreign word and foreign concept
altogether. There are no two ways about it.
True. But again like freedom, Malaysian
democracy has its own characteristics. Maybe
it's a further abridgement of the universal
concept of democracy.
Let's go back to freedom. I think I know what
people mean when they talk about more openness
and greater freedom under Abdullah. He has not -
maybe not yet - started to remove the laws that
are seen as constraining our freedom but he did
You see it is not just the laws that constrained
our freedom previously. It was the way certain
things were done. After a while certain ways of
doing things crystallised into accepted
practices - the unwritten rules. When Abdullah
became PM he ignored and pushed aside all those
practices and the so-called accepted practices
of the past. And that gives the sense of greater
At the same time I fear the openness is also
encouraging others to also institute their own
practices, their own ways of doing certain
things. While some people are encouraged to be
more free to speak up and to write, others are
becoming more daring in doing other things that,
if nothing is done to stop them, will ultimately
stop people from speaking freely - takut,
intimidated. New accepted practices.
You think so Cikgu?
Yes. Even MPs are not so sure that they can
truly speak their mind on some subjects. They
now know that some subjects OK, some subjects
I see what you mean. For instance a minister
recently said that non-Muslims cannot speak on
Islam. I think that's unfair as many things done
in the name of Islam also affect us non-Muslims.
Yes, you should be allowed to. After all isn't
Islam the religion of the federation and
non-Muslims, too, citizens of this federation?
And we are not discussing the religion per se.
We are discussing things that are done in the
name of the religion. For instance too many
doa's in school, the hijab becaming part of the
policewomen's uniform. Things like that.
But more frightening is the way Kelana Jaya BN
MP Loh Seng Kok was visited by 50 Umno Youth
members in his constituency and told that he did
not do the proper thing when he spoke on certain
things in the Dewan Rakyat. Loh had complained
about the "imbalance" in the history textbooks,
new prayer recital guidelines and the problems
faced by the non-Muslims with regards to places
My only hope is that such "visits" do not become
an accepted practice. Other MPs may feel
Zainon Ahmad is Political Editor at theSun