Ilaiya Barathi Panneerselvam and Douglas Elliot
Jakarta—May 2, 2017 It is the battle cry of a nation that echoes across the land. Simply put, ‘Malaysia Boleh’ is a slogan of the can-do spirit and a hope. Paradoxically, however, the term of ‘boleh’ (translated as “can”) has lost its meaning and changed over time. Nowadays it has become some sort of a mockery.
Long before Trump and his accusations of ‘fake news’ by the media, halfway around the world lies a country that prides itself in pioneering and perfecting the art of media manipulation—part of the Malaysia Boleh ethos.
Thanks to the few repressive laws in Malaysia, this situation has led to the proliferation of alternative media against the mainstream ones which by large are owned by the ruling political parties or those who are ‘in favor’ with the government.
After the national coalition front, Barisan Nasional (BN) lost its comfortable wins by losing the two-thirds majority in parliament during the 2008 general election, then the Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi relinquished the leadership to Najib Razak in 2009, thus becoming the President of United Malays National Organisation (UMNO)—BN main component party—and Malaysia’s next Prime Minister.
While notable reforms were promised, and ‘walk the talk’ theory was deemed to be finally realized, the progressive measure of repealing the archaic and arbitrary Internal Security Act (ISA) was rather short-lived as the dream of a better democracy shattered with the reinstatement of detention without trial, as well as repressive laws that limit various human rights, from freedom of press.
Since the abolishment of the ISA in 2011, the hide-behind-the-guise of a ‘new’ Security Offenses (Special Measures) Act is widely used by Najib’s administration for the sake of maintaining the nation’s “security, peace and harmony”. Left by the British colonialists, the Sedition Act (1948) has been continuously an important tool of the state to suppress the opposing voices coming from the alternative media, social activists, opposition parties and artists.
An excerpt from the Critical Repression: Freedom of Expression under Attack in Malaysia (2016) reported by Amnesty International reveals that the use of Sedition Act—which allows authorities sweeping powers to target those who oppose them—has skyrocketed since the Barisan Nasional coalition government narrowly won the 2013 general elections, with around 170 sedition cases during that period.
In 2015, a student activist Khalid Ismath had three sedition charges against him for a Facebook posting that denounced the Malaysian police force for abuse of power. Adding insult to injury, he was also implied with 11 accounts of charges under Communication and Multimedia Act (1998) for the similar statement.
Susan Loone, a journalist from Malaysiakini.com, was arrested under Sedition Act in 2014 for an article that was believed to hurt the sentiments of the Malaysian police.
Five media professionals from TheMalaysianInsider were arrested under Sedition Act in 2015 for publishing a news report pertaining punishments under Islamic law. The Managing Editor Lionel Morais, Features Editor Zulkifli Sulong, Malay News Editor Amin Iskandar, Malaysian Insider CEO Jahabar Sadiq and The Edge’s publisher (the portal’s parent company), Ho Kay Tat were all arrested for allegedly publishing seditious materials.
Another activist, Ali Abdul Jalil, was forced to seek asylum in Sweden after he was charged for allegedly making seditious statements through his Facebook account which were deemed as insults to the Johor royalty as well as Sultan of Selangor. After 20 days in police custody, he was later bailed out with intimidation.
Then in 2016, more politically motivated arrests were made under the draconian act. Among them was Zulkiflee Anwar Ulhaque, a political cartoonist popularly known as Zunar that was arrested for allegedly insulting the Prime Minister with his cartoon depictions.
Malaysia (Not So) Boleh Laws
Perhaps one form of the hegemonic media control is via the Communications and Multimedia Act (1998) that governs and limits online materials. Though Section 211 (prohibition on offensive content) and Section 233 (improper use of network facilities or network service) were stated in the law, it is often times violated to curb the voices that dare threaten the political security of the ruling class.
For instance, Fahmi Reza, a political artist, was charged under this law for his viral caricature of the P.M. Najib Razak drawn as a clown. Reza’s impingement even becomes funnier than the caricature itself.
“The harassment against cartoonists can be described as malicious and juvenile. Recognizing that freedom of expression can be restricted in selected circumstances, the persecution of cartoonists and artists such as Zunar and Fahmi Reza does not fit in the list of exception for freedom of expression and it is undeniably disproportionate in terms of its restriction,” criticized Sevan Doraisamy, the Executive Director of Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM).
Earlier in 2015, SarawakReport.org, a whistle-blowing portal run by a British investigative journalist, Clare Rewcastle Brown, was blocked by the Malaysian government after numerous allegations involving corruption scandal and financial mismanagement of Najib Razak. As per the instructions of Malaysian Communication and Multimedia Commission (MCMC), the access to its website was blocked. This action further reinforces the claim of a controlled media environment in Malaysia; where non-conventional messages or ideologies are deemed as deviant.
“Between the restriction for print publications under the Printing Presses and Publications Act 1984 and the control and prosecution for online content under the the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, press and journalist faces substantial constraint in terms of legal controls and sanctions. In recent years, good example of such restrictions can be seen in the raid against MalaysiaKini (a prominent online media in Malaysia) under Section 233 of the Communciation and Multimedia Act 1998 for uploading a press conference which they covered. The raid against Malaysian Insider under Section 124C of the Penal Code (threatening parliamentary democracy) while it was still operating was also another example in which the law is interpreted and utilized to restrict press freedom”, explained Sevan.
Besides that, there are other laws which are occasionally used to silent the opposing views, such as Defamation Act 1957, Official Secrets Act 1972, National Security Council Act 2016 , Evidence Act 1950 and few others. Though it claims to maintain the order of the nation, the true nature of the practice gives it an opposite impression.
“Regulations by government or the state, as the Malaysian government has tried to do for awhile, should be opposed. Governments are seldom benign, and the Malaysian government has certainly proven, time and again, that it wishes to curb the media for the wrong reasons,” says Professor Zaharom Nain from Media and Communication Studies, University of Nottingham Malaysia Campus.
“It’s a bleak future, as long as journalists, other media personnel, and, certainly concerned Malaysian from all walks of life remain docile and fearful to the point of being paralysed with unreasonable fear and paranoia. Press freedom and personal freedom in Malaysia will face a dark future because Malaysians have been too spoiled, socialized, segregated and made to fear their own shadows. They thus are paying for their silence, apathy and timidity,” lamented by Professor Zaharom on what beholds to the freedom of expression in Malaysia.
The blatant tactic serves as the repressive tools to subjugate the masses through coercion. The law, which was perceived as the guardian that ensures the peace and harmony of a nation, is now shifted as an archaic apparatus to serve those who are in power. For such optimism in its message, Malaysia Boleh is now merely an exclamation of exasperation.
Additional reporting by Siow Jing En and Ooi Jing Yi
The writers are students from Universiti Sains Malaysia (USM)