Ridiculing the government is part of democracy

MAY 20 — Barisan Nasional (BN) needs to accept the fact that Malaysians and people around the world hate their governments in general. It’s nothing personal.

The government will be blamed for everything from the rising cost of living to oil prices and taxes.

A healthy democracy provides citizens the freedom to criticise, insult and ridicule the government however they want to, even if their opinions are unfair.

If people are not allowed to critique policies by the government of the day that they disagree with, how can voters make an informed decision about which political party they want to vote into power?

So it is extremely disturbing to read that the Immigration Department reportedly enforced a ruling a few months ago to prohibit Malaysians who ridicule the government from travelling overseas for three years. This came after Bersih 2.0 chair Maria Chin Abdullah, who has been fighting for free and fair elections, was barred from flying to South Korea last Sunday to receive a human rights award for the electoral reform NGO. DAP lawmaker Tony Pua has also been barred from leaving the country since last July.

Criticising the government is not a criminal offence.

Controlling the movement of Malaysians solely because of their political ideologies is an abhorrent abuse of power. 

Deputy Home Minister Datuk Nur Jazlan Mohamed claimed that the Malaysian passport is a privilege, not a right. He also claimed that the government’s definition of insult or ridicule is based on the Federal Constitution.

However, the word “insult” is not found anywhere in the Federal Constitution. The only thing that comes close to criminalising so-called insults is Section 298A of the Penal Code that prohibits causing disharmony on grounds of religion. Nothing to do with insulting the government.

According to Nur Jazlan, the government considers religious and racial insults as equivalent to insulting the country and as such, can merit an overseas travel ban.

If that’s indeed the case, then the government should first haul such people to court, charge them with a criminal offence (if any), and get a conviction before punishing them with a travel ban. Imposing such a heavy punishment arbitrarily, even before a court decides if one has committed a crime, violates the maxim of innocent till proven guilty.

In any case, hurling insults or criticisms should never be criminalised in the interest of freedom of speech. Travel restrictions should only be enforced against people charged with actual crimes to prevent them from fleeing the country.

The Home Ministry should also take note of our fundamental right to freedom of movement under Article 9 of the Federal Constitution. Although the Article doesn’t specifically mention the freedom to travel abroad, the spirit of the law should be observed. Article 5 of the Federal Constitution also guarantees Malaysians the right to personal liberty.

Article 13 of the United Nations' Universal Declaration of Human Rights specifically mentions one’s right to leave their country and to return to it.

By the way things are going in Malaysia, less than five years before we’re supposed to achieve developed nation status, it appears that the government is intent on regressing into a dictatorship.

State secrets, sedition investigations and now, travel restrictions merely for insulting the government, have become the norm.

The government should be addressing criticisms instead of using force to quell dissent.

If citizens can’t travel overseas just because they don’t hold the BN government in high regard, then Malaysia might as well abolish elections since having different political ideologies is now considered a crime.

*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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