Joint Press Statement on 9th September 2008
We, the undersigned civil society groups, oppose the use of the Sedition Act on Ahmad Ismail, Chief of UMNO Bukit Bendera for his alleged racist remarks. The use of the Sedition Act legitimizes the draconian act which has long been condemned by civil society and opposition parties. Rather than use it to further curb the freedom of expression – whoever the accused – the UMNO politician and his colleagues who backed him with more racist statements should be made to pay his price politically.
We condemn Ahmad Ismail and Penang UMNO for their efforts to shift the blame for the episode and its aftermath onto the journalist who reported the alleged inflammatory statements. In the process they have aroused ethnic sentiments in the press conferences held on Sept 6 and 8. Most shockingly, Penang Opposition Leader Datuk Azhar Ibrahim was quoted to have said of the journalist, “What was written may lead to a racial riot. If such a thing happens, he is the first person that should be shot.” This is a thinly-veiled threat of violence. If the reporting had been wrong, why should Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak who was present when Ahmad Ismail gave his speech apologize for a fabricated report? And if there is any doubt of the contents of his original speech, the explicitly racist nature of the subsequent remarks by Ahmad Ismail and his other colleagues in the two press conferences has confirmed their nasty intention.
We should however realize that exclusivist and hate speech – whether targeted on the basis of ethnicity, religion, gender, lifestyle or other grounds – is inevitable in any society and cannot be eliminated through laws. Unless we are in an emergency situation and confronted by individuals or groups inciting violence on racial grounds, there is no justification for legally policing and penalizing speech and expression. The only remedy to hate speech is the use of reason and to uphold the freedom of expression. When the society is mature, bigots like Ahmad Ismail – and their party if it refuses to penalize them – will be automatically punished by voters.
We urge Malaysians to be rational and to confront ethnocentric politicians by engaging them with rigorous and open debate. Resorting to legal means to censor speeches is unwittingly playing into the hands of those in the Government who seek to manipulate the “sensitive issue” paradigm to curb public discourse and political participation. It will also show that we as a society are intellectually incapable of refuting flawed rhetoric whatever the source.
Our stand on the case of Ahmad Ismail is consistent with that we have taken towards recent similar cases impacting on our freedom of speech and expression, notably the cases relating to forum disruption, book banning and website blocking. We reiterate the need to form a Parliamentary Select Committee to reform all freedom of speech and information and media-related laws including the Sedition Act. This is the only way we may mature as a society and fend off bigotry. We urge all Malaysians who oppose ethnic politics to endorse the 2008 Memorandum for Media Freedom at www.benar.org.
Through our measured and rational response, Malaysians can expose the political opportunism and the use of distorted history and other lies by the alleged inflammatory speaker and many others. Ahmad Ismail and others of the same ilk do not define our nationhood. His statement in no way affects the constitutional and socio-political reality that Chinese Malaysians – and other majority and minority communities – are equal citizens with similar rights as other citizens in this country.
If anything, Ahmad Ismail has stirred a lively debate that has brought out to public attention the deep and irrational well of UMNO’s communalism. The apology by UMNO Deputy president and the affirmation of the equal rights of minority communities by UMNO President are the steps in the right direction. However, now that Ahmad Ismail and UMNO Penang have openly snubbed their top leaders, UMNO must take stern disciplinary action to demonstrate its ability to censure its extremist and racially bigoted elements and regain the trust and confidence of, not only the non-Malays and non-Muslims, but of all Malaysians.
1. Writer Alliance for Media Independence (WAMI)
2. Aliran Kesedaran Negara (Aliran)
3. Bus Users’ Group, Penang
4. Centre for Independent Journalism (CIJ)
5. Centre for Policy Initiatives (CPI)
6. Civil Society Initiative for Parliamentary Reform (CSI@Parliament)
7. Civil Rights Committee of the Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall (CRC-KLSCAH)
8. Empower (Persatuan Kesedaran Komuniti, Selangor)
9. Group of Concerned Citizens (GCC)
10. Malaysia Youth and Students Democratic Movement (DEMA)
11. Penang Watch
12. Research for Social Advancement (REFSA)
13. Save Ourselves (SOS), Penang
14. Sister in Islam (SIS)
15. Suara Rakyat Malaysia (SUARAM)
16. Women’s Aid Organization (WAO)