By Hafiz Noor Shams

Words may contribute to violent behaviours.

This potential makes various individuals apprehensive of the ideal of freedom and in this case, free speech. They fear the capability of words to subvert peace and stability. For our society to mature however, we must overcome that fear and continue to practice freedom.

Out of this fear, some would readily accuse others of sedition for uttering offensive words in hope that the State punishes the accused. Advocates of State action would argue that preventive actions are crucial to avoid realisation of that fear.

This is observable in mainstream politics. Members and sympathisers of both Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Rakyat and at times, even independents, are quick to charge the other side of sedition.

The latest case involves Nasir Safar, a former special officer to the Prime Minister who made disparaging remark about Chinese and Indian Malaysians. Some wanted him charged under the Sedition Act and some wanted his citizenship stripped.

DAP politicians meanwhile are quick to accuse Utusan Malaysia of sedition each time the conservative paper publishes provocative articles. In the case of the Perak crisis, Karpal Singh was charged for sedition for allegedly insulting the Sultan amid widespread discontent against the royal house.

In the aftermath of the Allah ruling and attacks on houses of worship, some wanted freedom of assembly be curbed, out of fear that it would repeat May 13 incident.

The apprehension of the potential of words is understandable and even justifiable. From the point of liberty, if a civil unrest does happen, a person’s right to life and his or her property, which typically is secured only during stable times, are at stake.

Still, freedom of expression, among other freedoms, is no less important than stability.

Trade-off between these concerns, between freedom and stability, is sometimes necessary. When there is trade-off, more often than not, the one jettisoned into the blue ocean is freedom of expression. It becomes hard to convince others of the virtue of free speech when the society at large is confronted with actual threats to life and property.

In times of pure chaos for instance, which I should add is an extreme case, imposition of curfew is an important step in restoring the rule of law. Without rule of law, it becomes hard to secure individual liberty. This is a troubling thought.

Fortunately, only rarely does that erosion is justifiable. Absolute certainty is a requirement that must be fulfilled to make that erosion a necessary and acceptable sacrifice. That requirement is made with the recognition that that for every potential of disturbance, there is possibility for it not to occur. There is no certainty but rather, there is only suspicion and conjecture. Suspicion is not a sufficient condition for action; anybody can suspect anything. For one to advocate action is to assume that negative repercussions with absolute certainty, which is untrue.

Moreover, different individuals hold different things as offensive and perhaps, therefore potentially seditious. It is highly problematic to compromise somebody’s individual rights because someone out there has trouble managing his or her emotion with respect to disagreeable words or ideas.

With the spirit of equality before the law, to have the State acting against every, or even any, individual for making statement that somebody out there deems as offensive with the assumption of certainty of words’ potential – with certainty that that somebody will go out and run amok — in the background leads to a suffocating environment, where freedom cannot exist.

Therefore, if freedom is a concern at all, the mere potential of words — fraud, explicit threat and orders to transgression of individual rights excluded — does not justify forceful action by the State.

Those who prioritise stability — in terms of security over life and property — over liberty would argue for the adoption of precautionary principle to justify preventive action by the State. The adoption of the principle however rests upon what actually one seeks to preserve.

For freedom lovers, the least risky option is the preservation of not only life and property, but the preservation of freedom of conscience as well. Their precautionary principle is the requirement for certainty.

If the negative effects on life, property or both do happened and hence, its certainty ascertained, retribution by the State is necessary to remind all that any transgression of liberty has its price. This is the only way to deal with the negative potential of words without hurting freedom.

Consistent punishment, administered by the State, for all transgression against individual liberty creates cost to the transgression. That cost acts to discourage of such transgression from happening, and thus lowering the probability of words translating into violent behaviour.

This does not mean precaution cannot be taken. Precaution can be taken, and indeed it is wise to do so. Such precaution it must come in terms of increased vigilance against violence, not against freedom, or in our context, words. There are always those who will attempt to cross the border. This must be addressed by having guards at the borders, not by making the border smaller.

This requirement of certainty crosses out items in the what-cannot-be-said list, transforming a society analogous to a room full of fragile vases, fear everybody fears everything, into one of an open field. It provides members of the society opportunities to practice their freedom and discover by themselves the mature reaction to disagreeable words.

The mature reactions to disagreeable words always relate back to rational exhibition of why such words or ideas are wrong, without resorting to forceful State action or personal coercive action. Immature reactions are ones that involves threats and violence. It is immature because the perpetrators are unable to deal with offensive ideas without resorting to violence.

That maturity mostly comes by learning how to restrain one’s action when faced with disagreeable words. It is about the negotiating the border without crossing it.

Such education of negotiation is crucial in inculcating the practice of restraint. The practice of restraint itself is crucial in embracing is a free person’s personal responsibility: for a person to expect his or her individual rights secured, he or she must respect others. That respect comes through restraint in action.

Without free speech, with the State acts against supposedly offensive and seditious speeches out of fear, such training in freedom and education of the responsibility that entails with individual liberty cannot happen.

–  –  –

Hafiz Noor Shams is a Fellow at the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS).

This article first appeared in The Malaysian Insider on 11 February 2010.

Image credit:

Leave a comment