By Kee Thuan Chye | MK
I can’t help but wonder if the government really thinks that Malaysians are stupid. So stupid that we can be hoodwinked into believing that the changes they propose to our laws amount to actual reform.
Two months ago, when Prime Minister Najib Razak announced that newspapers would no longer have to renew their publishing licences annually, he might have expected us to go ga-ga and applaud and say that the media would now be freer.
But if we had done that, we would indeed have been stupid. Because we would not have realised that there is really no change.
Even if the newspapers need not renew their licences every year, the fact remains that the home minister still retains the power to suspend or close down any newspaper at any time – if he feels it is too free in expressing its views, or for whatever reasons.
So, whether there is renewal or not, it does not matter. As long as the home minister is still as powerful as before, your newspaper can still get into trouble with him. What’s more, his decision cannot be challenged in court.
Ah! If you now say that stinks like a scam, that the government is actually trying to deceive us, you would be right. But if you still think, like the mainstream media does, that there is actual reform in that licence renewal waiver, then the government would be right in thinking that Malaysians are stupid. Or, at least, some Malaysians.
You may be surprised that there are indeed such stupid Malaysians.
They are the ones who continue to support the ruling party and defend its policies, including its numerous flip-flops. They are the ones who will vote for that party at the next general election and say it is better to go with the devil they know than the devil they don’t know.
They are the ones who don’t know they are being fooled. They might even be people who know they are being fooled, but still choose to go with the devil who is fooling them. Needless to say, the ones who know they are being fooled and still continue to support the party are even more stupid.
And they will continue to be stupid if they believe that the Peaceful Assembly Bill, which the government tabled two days ago, is a step forward, guarantees more freedom, and will lead to Malaysia being “the best democracy” as promised by Najib.
Their stupidity will not allow them to see that it’s another attempt to hoodwink Malaysians. They will say it’s good because it allows Malaysians to gather in public without having any need to apply for a police permit.
Yes, on the surface, it looks good that a police permit is no longer required. But now consider the other conditions. The most disturbing one is this – although you don’t need a police, permit, your assembly cannot proceed if there is objection by the police.
What? Isn’t that like getting a police permit?
Let me repeat. You don’t need a permit but if the police object, your assembly can’t go on. So, what does that mean? Your assembly is still dependent on police approval, isn’t it? So what’s new?
If you straight away say, “That police permit waiver is a scam!”, then you’re not stupid. Because there is no change. And you can see it for what it is.
In fact, it has now become worse. You have to give the police advance notice of your assembly 30 days before it is due to be held. Thirty days! That’s a long time to plan.
And what happens if you want to stage a spontaneous assembly? What if the government does something cruel and unfair and unlawful and citizens feel compelled to take to the streets to protest against it immediately?
Well, that will be considered illegal. And if you don’t provide the 30-day notice, you can be fined up to RM10,000!
And did I mention the words “streets” and “protest”?
Well, according to the new bill, no street protests will be allowed.
What? Then what’s the point of an assembly? Only for socialising? For merely hanging about in public? No placards? No cheering? No chanting?
The new bill is obviously designed to protect the government, not to give more democratic space to the citizens. It is designed to prevent people from protesting against the government.
In fact, the new bill transgresses the rights of freedom guaranteed in the federal constitution.
One, if you are below the age of 21, you cannot organise an assembly. Is that fair? Are those below that age not citizens who should enjoy equal rights? Is this democracy? Is this “the best democracy”?
Two, if you are below the age of 15, you cannot take part in an assembly except cultural and religious ones, like funeral processions, or events approved by the home minister. Again, discrimination. Again, power to the home minister.
Three, areas at which public gatherings cannot be held have now been specified. Has this ever been done before?
Bill gives cops more power
And if you were to look at the list of prohibited areas, which include petrol stations, hospitals, mosques, fire stations, kindergartens, schools, etc, you would see that the democratic space – also in physical terms – has become even smaller. Especially since there must also be a buffer zone of 50 metres around each of these areas that public gatherings cannot traverse.
Most districts, especially in city centres, have a few of such areas in close proximity to one another. As such, the interstices between the buffers would be too small to accommodate a mass of people.
How then would a public assembly be able to fill these little spaces? This condition is clearly aimed at discouraging assemblies in city centres.
Four, the police have even more power now. They can decide to arrest any assembly participants they deem a problem, and those arrested can be fined up to RM20,000. Is that providing more freedom or more deterrence? And who is to say the police decisions may not be arbitrary?
So, my fellow Malaysians, are we going to be stupid? Are we going to accept this bill that discriminates against some of us, throttles our freedom and disregards the constitution?
Are we going to be fools and be thankful to the government and say the bill is providing reform and taking Malaysia forward, and should therefore be passed into law? Are we going to be twice bitten by the same scam and not be aware of it?
Well, there’s no fine imposed yet for taking to the streets. And there’s still leeway to do it without giving 30 days’ advance notice. Once the law is passed, however, it will be too late.
KEE THUAN CHYE is the author of ‘March 8: The Day Malaysia Woke Up’, which just won 3rd prize in the Popular Readers’ Choice Awards. It has also been translated into Chinese.