MY political science lecturer once told me how to measure the limit of individual freedom. Imagine, he said, we were about to start a parade and had to stretch our left and right hands to form a straight line.
He said the moment our left or right hand touched the ears of the others standing to our left and right, this was the limit of our personal freedom.
Then, he asked us whether we had ever seen a bird perched on the head of another bird, even of different species; and why a flock of birds flying in the air never suffered broken wings?
He explained that even birds knew how to maintain their limit of freedom by restraining themselves from hurting others. He added that even a herd of buffaloes never trampled on each other.
My lecturer said this when we were discussing the concept of freedom by Max Weber, a German sociologist, philosopher, jurist and political economist (1864 –1920).
I am recalling the above remarks not to start a polemic on Max Weber and his concept of freedom but to discuss the intention of the Pakatan Harapan government to “discipline” Malaysia’s social media practitioners to make responsible and accountable postings or comments in online news portals.
More precisely, Communications and Multimedia Minister Gobind Singh Deo said the authorities might want “to take action against operators of news portals who allow their readers to post comments which touch on racial and religious sensitivities, as well as the royal institution”.
He said news portals must practise self-regulation by moderating their news and comments posted on their website, and added that while social media and online news portals do benefit society, there is a need to exercise proper decorum on these platforms.
Gobind made the statement after receiving numerous complaints from the public who say there appears to be no monitoring on the part of the portal operators with regard to the comments posted. He also said that such comments, if not monitored, could fuel anger and lead to bigger problems.
Gobind was actually talking about freedom of speech, expression and the press, which are among the pillars of democracy constituted in Article 19, 20 and 21 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) and enshrined in Article 10 of the Federal Constitution.
However, he seemed unsure of whether his intention was politically correct, socially acceptable and legally prudent.
This was reflected in his statement when clarifying that “his previous statement was not meant to curtail civil liberties but to maintain decorum and avoid inflammatory remarks, which may impact the security of this nation”.
As the minister, Gobind is on the right track. It is also pertinent that he plans to demonstrate the government’s inclusivity by meeting the concerned parties.
Hopefully, he also realises that no freedom is unlimited.
This is why Article 29 (2) and 29(3) of UDHR states as follows:
Article 29(2): “In the exercise of his rights and freedoms, everyone shall be subject only to such limitations as are determined by law solely for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others and of meeting the just requirements of morality, public order and the general welfare in a democratic society.”
Article 29 (3): “These rights and freedoms may in no case be exercised contrary to the purposes and principles of the United Nations.”
Additionally, Article 10(2)(a) of the Federal Constitution states the following:
Article 10(2): “Parliament may by law impose (a) on the rights conferred by paragraph (a) of Clause 1 [on freedom of speech and expression], such restrictions as it deems necessary or expedient in the interest of the security of the Federation or any part thereof, friendly relations with other countries, public order or morality …”
The above are evidences that freedom of speech and expression by Malaysians could be restricted by law in the interests of national security, external relations, public order and morality. They are also restricted by the UDHR based on similar grounds.
Hence, the government should not be apologetic in dealing with the above phenomena, particularly in Malaysia, where societal and identity security must be preserved and protected in the name of national resilience, unity, security and survival.
It is not a “draconian” move to deter phenomena which threatens societal and identity security in a plural state. But, it is a disservice to society if the government allows them to flourish.
The simplest approach to measure our freedom, in this case, is just like what my lecturer had suggested: do not encroach on the sensitivities of others, including those mentioned by Gobind.
This is because Internet-based material detrimental to Malaysia, its people and national security must be deterred decisively, comprehensively and effectively.
Datuk Dr Ruhanie Ahmad, was a member of parliament for Parit Sulong, Johor, from 1990 to 2004