KUALA LUMPUR, Aug 16 – Freedom of speech may not be absolute but its limits cannot be so low that all manner of perceived insults to religion bring the full brunt of authority on transgressors, human rights and law reform group Lawyers for Liberty said today.
Expressing “extreme concern” today about the “escalating religious intolerance” in the Malay/ Muslim-majority country, the group noted the eagerness to see insult that has led to the arrest of resort manager or allowing Buddhists to pray in a surau, as well as the sedition probes against a Muslim dog trainer and a pair of bloggers for allegedly insulting Muslim sensitivities.
“While it is true freedom of speech is not absolute and there are accepted limitations e.g. incitement to violence and hate speech – the threshold for freedom of speech however must be high,” Lawyers for Liberty co-founder Eric Paulsen said in a statement today.
As a democratic state with clearly defined liberties and rights, Paulsen said discourse – even on supposedly sensitive matters such as religion – must not be met with such harsh action seen in the three cases mentioned.
”Religion like any other important issue cannot escape from being subject to scrutiny, comment, satire and to the less eloquent, insult and condemnation,” Lawyers for Liberty co-founder Eric Paulsen said in a statement today.
”This is all the more true in the vast and borderless internet and social media age where anybody, in good faith or otherwise, can comment on any issues, including on religion,” he said.
”The government and state institutions such as PDRM (Royal Malaysian Police Force), Attorney-General’s Chambers and Jakim (Malaysian Islamic Development Department), instead of advocating harsh action, should take a more measured approach in diffusing this obvious attempt to pit Malay/Muslim against other ethnic groups/religions and explain why Islam or any other religion should not be subjected to insults,” he added.
The manager of a resort in Kota Tinggi, Johor, was arrested last Tuesday for “defiling a place of worship” after he allegedly allowed a group of Buddhist tourists to worship in a surau (Muslim prayer room) at the resort.
Home Minister Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi reportedly said on Wednesday that the Singaporean resort operator’s permanent residence in Malaysia would be revoked once investigations are completed.
The resort operator’s arrest came swiftly after two other cases of purported religious insults last month.
Two Chinese bloggers — Alvin Tan and Vivian Lee, jointly known as Alvivi — were charged last month with sedition after they posted a mock “Selamat Berbuka Puasa” (breaking of fast) greeting on their Facebook page that showed them eating “bak kut teh” (a soupy pork broth).
Muslim dog trainer Maznah Yusof, better known as Chetz Yusof, is also being investigated for sedition after a video of her bathing and walking her three dogs resurfaced recently on YouTube.
”It would be futile and irresponsible for the authorities to keep going after these perceived ‘insults’ when there are more pressing matters at hand, especially the high crime rate and the shocking spate of violent crimes involving guns and explosives,” said Paulsen.
He also accused the authorities today of practising double standards in persecuting Alvivi, Maznah and the resort manager.
”What Alvivi, Chetz and Syed Ahmad have done, while insensitive and naïve, were nothing compared to what pro-Umno individuals like Ibrahim Ali, Zulkilfi Noordin, Ridhuan Tee, Mohd Noor Abdullah and others have done, which were much more serious and offensive, but led to no repercussion or action,” said Paulsen.
Perkasa chief Datuk Ibrahim Ali had once called for Malay-language bibles that contain the word “Allah” to be burned, while his vice-president Datuk Zulkifli Noordin had called the Ganges River in India, which is revered by Hindus, filthy.
Utusan Malaysia columnist Ridhuan Tee Abdullah wrote a controversial column in Malay daily Sinar Harian last February, in which he censured the Hindus for purportedly causing traffic jams at Batu Caves during Thaipusam.
Last May, former Court of Appeal judge Datuk Mohd Noor Abdullah reportedly warned the Chinese to prepare for a backlash from the Malays for purportedly betraying Barisan Nasional (BN) in Election 2013.
”We therefore call on the authorities to act fairly and professionally, and not to misuse their powers for Umno’s political ends, which are clearly aimed at eroding our nation’s inter-ethnic/ inter-religious relations and dividing the nation between Malay/Muslim and other ethnic group/religion and bolstering Umno’s credential as the “defender” of Islam and Malays,” said Paulsen.
By Boo Su-Lyn, the Malay Mail