free speech offensiveOctober 13 – Muslim preacher Zamihan Mat Zin made some toe-curling racist comments about the Chinese in a speech at a mosque in Shah Alam, recorded on video, when he expressed his support for Muslim-only laundromats.

“The Chinese usually don’t wash after they pee and poop. What about menstrual blood on their underwear? Some hug and embrace dogs, consume alcohol, spill alcohol, eat pork, pork soup staining their clothes. This is all synonymous with them, synonymous with them; it’s not that we’re prejudiced. Elements of alcohol, pigs and dogs are synonymous with them. If they want to enter a dobi, enter a normal dobi lah,” he had said.

He also said a Sultan “should not” have said that a Muslim-friendly laundromat should not be opened in the latter’s state.

Zamihan is now under a sedition investigation, seemingly over his comments about the ruler rather than about his racist insults of the Chinese.

Many people have condemned him. There is even a petition for Zamihan to be charged with sedition, citing his “extremely demeaning” comments about the Chinese and accusing him of stirring racial hatred. It was signed by over 3,000 people in just a day.

Several MCA leaders welcomed the sedition investigation, saying Zamihan had “seriously offended” the feelings of the ethnic Chinese and non-Muslims.

It is unfortunate that only ethnic Chinese politicians see it fit to censure Zamihan, while their Malay-Muslim colleagues across the political divide remain silent to avoid offending their voter base. In the new millennium, we really should not use the racist outdated model of politicians only speaking out for those of the same ethnicity and faith.

Lawmakers and politicians should not be afraid of calling out people coming from their own ethnic or religious communities. This will help curb race politics as our representatives can then truly represent Malaysians across ethnicity and faith, instead of only “their own kind”.

The other worrying issue is Malaysians’ tendency to push for State action whenever anyone makes offensive remarks. This proclivity for police action against any speech deemed unacceptable, especially when it relates to race and religion, cuts across political ideology, ethnic and religious boundaries.

Liberals and conservatives, Muslims and non-Muslims, Barisan Nasional (BN) and Pakatan Harapan (PH) are all the same in this regard.

If we really want freedom of speech, then we have to stop asking for State action against people who offend us. There is no such thing as drawing the line between so-called “polite” and “rude” comments because offensiveness, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.

Offending someone should not be a crime.

If we are angry about book bans and the criminalisation of intellectual talks on Islam, then we cannot be asking for the same State action against things that offend us. The same goes for those who want an expansion of Shariah law, for example – they cannot be calling for the imprisonment of people who disagree with them just because they are offended. All opinions should be equally protected from State action. 

This includes opinions that may be different than those of any Ruler.

Malaysia is a democracy. The voice of the people is supreme. Citizens should have the right to express any opinion about governance and policymaking without fear of sanctions simply for disagreeing with an unelected person.

Having said that, Zamihan’s speech was one of the most offensive and racist things I have heard in a long time. It almost borders on hate speech because he seems to imply that the Chinese are essentially vermin. This is just a step removed from advocating violence against a particular group of people that have already been dehumanised.  

However, I have a very narrow definition of hate speech and believe that state action should only be taken on comments that explicitly promote physical violence against people, whether it is based on their ethnicity, faith, gender, or sexuality.

Lawmakers generally avoid talking about protecting the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community that is vulnerable to both hate crimes and State action. As it is, there are already talks scheduled today and tomorrow, including at a public university, about the LGBT alternately titled the “Road to Heaven” and “Ticket to Hell”. 

The solution to racism and discrimination is not by shutting people up.

We tried that after the 1969 race riots by amending the Sedition Act in 1970 to criminalise the questioning of citizenship (Part III of the Federal Constitution), the national language which is the Malay language and the study of languages of other communities (Article 152), the special position of the Malays and natives of Sabah and Sarawak and the interests of other communities (Article 153), as well as Rulers’ sovereignty (Article 181).

Almost 50 years later, we are still struggling with racial and religious tension, with no clear end to race politics in sight. 

Not talking about things does not make the problem go away. I believe that most of us love our country and we have our own ideas of making Malaysia a better place.

Some people may have genuine concerns about the suitability of vernacular schools in a multicultural society, while some may want to practise their faith according to how they see fit, even if it may seem ultra conservative to others.

Other people may not see the relevance of certain Bumiputera policies today, such as Bumiputera quotas and discounts in property, or fear that they may one day be forced to live their lives according to religious beliefs they do not subscribe to.

We should not prevent people from expressing opinions about such matters. Neither can we impose any sort of rule on self-expression, short of prohibiting hate speech which should be extremely limited and specific in its definition, if we want everyone to be honest about their concerns.

Some will be crass in speaking, or are even openly sexist, racist or bigoted. That is to be expected in a free marketplace of ideas – we just have to separate the wheat from the chaff.

Freedom of speech, however, does not mean that people are free from other consequences of being offensive, such as boycotts or just plain angry Facebook posts. It just means freedom from State action like jail and a permanent criminal record.

Dove, for example, pulled an advertisement for body wash perceived as “racist” based on a viral screenshot that appeared to depict a black woman turning into a white woman after using the product. The black model, however, now says the ad was taken out of context and it was actually meant to represent diversity, as the full ad had featured five women of different ethnicities.  

No police action necessary.

It’s time we took a leaf from Western democracies (though they sometimes face problems on the opposite end of the spectrum with political correctness) and learned how to deal with offensive people ourselves without dragging the police in.

And it’s time we stopped relying on politicians and unelected public figures to provide any sort of “leadership” in fixing the country. They are not our leaders.

Governments are only meant to allocate resources properly and efficiently based on the mandate that we give them, which we can take back any time.

It is we, the people, who should take the responsibility to make governments and democracy work for us.