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Is it safe to speak our minds?

Published in Malay Mail Online

On Friday, a curator on a Malaysian rotation Twitter account was kicked out for breaching guidelines. He was discussing aspects of a weekly ritual involving a certain religion.

There have been many who pushed the boundaries with their topics. The issue of LGBT rights, sex and toilet humour have all been touched upon several times by the different curators. So has religion.

Significantly though, this happened barely a week after amendments to the controversial Sedition Act was bulldozed through Parliament. An amendment which now counts insulting and mocking any religion in Malaysia as seditious.

What is interesting is that the Bill had specified that it was only seditious to insult the brand of Islam that is approved by Putrajaya. Essentially, this means that it is not seditious when it comes to religious minorities, such as Shiah and Ahmadi followers, since they were never recognised by the state as denominations of Islam.

Realistically, people will be more wary of debating religious issues, especially involving Islam, despite the religion’s pervasiveness in our daily lives and national policies.

As more and more elements of religion creep into our country’s administration, this will mean that there will be fewer and fewer matters that can be discussed by the public with no fear.

The social media boom has opened a new avenue for public discourse among Malaysians. Those with access to the Internet are more connected than ever, not to authorities imparting their wisdom, but to their own peers.

But to some, this might as well be an opened can of worms. Religion used to be about control, and control is no longer possible when your minds are given unfettered access to clashing ideas.

Malaysia has taken a huge step backwards by amending the Sedition Act, and with it perhaps our own intellectual capacity.

Even before, Malaysians were already so used to practising self-censorship instead of utilising our discretion.

The rotation Twitter account had already put in place strict prohibition against discussing “sensitive racial or religious issues, partisan politics and other matters that may strongly offend the public.”

And this restriction was probably for the benefit of its administrators, rather than to dumb down its users. After all, who wishes to go to prison just by association?

Even writers, especially those published in major outlets, are not spared self-censorship. Either to protect our subjects, or ourselves.

You might realise that my first paragraph was heavily masked, since I did not wish to see anybody get into trouble.

The point is, I should not even have to worry about that in the first place.

A columnist is usually blessed with a patient editor who will ensure that nobody gets in trouble just for penning his opinion. But even with such care, there is no guarantee that others will not get offended by your writing.

The reality is, not everybody has their own editors, to whom they can leave to make judgment calls.

Most people are their own editors. While some have astute judgment, others are not as lucky or skilled.

A writer must be responsible for his creation. But still it worries me to no end, to fear that my words would be blunted, one way or another. What good is a writer without his own words?

The deed is done, but it is far from over. No society can exist without room for dissent and criticism, and ultimately the public will find a way to vent their negative thoughts safely, or risk an implosion.

Will we see a return to private newsletters, with thoughts, ideologies and opinions spread through trusted social circles? Or limited print zines? Or perhaps data spread through dead drops or encrypted networks?

Or will we see a new breed of anonymous thought leaders? Will our dissenters be the ones based abroad, out of the law’s reach?

Times are tough, but ideas will never die. We will find a way, because some things can never be stifled for long.

Published inMMO column
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