Digging Up The Flower Bed: Digital Speech In Malaysia

In concluding his thesis titled “Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom: Digital Speech in Malaysia”, Tang Hang Wu noted, “Whether this community will be allowed to continue to exist in its current form is an open question.” Tang is an Associate Professor at the Faculty of Law, National University of Singapore. The following is the abstract of his thesis:

The thesis of this paper is that in some societies blogs are beginning to act as a force for democratization and perform the role of being an alternative form of media. Blogging amplifies the cultural and participatory elements of free speech by enabling more people to take part in the spread of ideas and the dissemination of information. By publishing online, bloggers not only rout around prohibitive financial hurdles to media production but also overcome some laws that restrict freedom of expression. This essay focuses on a Malaysian case study of bloggers who are now a formidable force in disseminating information and promoting a democratic culture in the country despite laws that restrict free speech in the country. This essay also reflects on the salient lessons gleaned from the Malaysian experience which might be relevant to the project of constructing a successful blogging scene in the Middle East and other authoritarian or soft-authoritarian regimes.

We need to wonder no more. The day of reckoning for Malaysian bloggers is finally here. Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi warned that those using blogs and the Internet to spread rumours and slander would be detained for undermining the nation’s economic policies. The Star quoted him saying, “We cannot allow such matters to flow through uncontrolled.”

But this is nothing new. Many of us will remember that Jeff Ooi, the pioneer of Malaysian socio-political blogs, was hauled up by the police in February 2005 for a controversial comment left in his blog. In January 2003, online news portal Malaysiakini had its servers carted away by the police for refusing to reveal the author of a letter critical of special rights accorded to Bumiputras. Going further back to September 1998, four persons were arrested and charged in court for spreading rumours of a riot in Chow Kit via emails and newsgroups.

As Jeff succinctly put it: “What is illegal offline is also illegal online.”

To all intents and purposes, the Internet is not a frontier of lawlessness and should not be treated as such. We are still bound by the laws of the state. As evident from past incidents, the police have no qualms in coming down hard on those who were deemed to have stepped over the line.

All said, it is still surprising that the Prime Minister has come out with this statement now. It does not bode well for the Malaysian blogosphere, especially for socio-political bloggers who have been furnishing alternative news and those not carried by mainstream media.

Will little birds brave the threats and continue to supply insider news? Will bloggers dare to write as boldly as before? The wheel has been set in motion. The noose is slowly but surely being tightened. The flowers are no longer blooming. Whither digital speech in Malaysia?