Children dressed as trees ignite a response that marks the end of freedom of speech — Tarak Singh

JULY 3 — I am a patriotic and proud Malaysian, but I also feel the responsibility to call out my country and my government when I feel it is necessary. The concept of freedom of speech is a cornerstone of democracy, and in Malaysia, free speech has turned into an absolute joke.

Seeing the headline Ministry probes international school over kids’ anti-palm oil performance, I thought this has to be some kind of prank, but then I read on and realised it is actually a reflection of the sad reality of the censorship in our country.

It all started with some children, aged seven or so, dressed in environmentally-themed costumes,  giving a presentation during a school event. They gave palm oil a mention stating, “If we don’t do something about this now, and ensure all palm oil is sustainably grown, within 10 years, these beautiful creatures(orangutans) could be gone from our world forever.”

Fair enough, right? An international school putting an emphasis on the environment and calling out our society to take action against an industry that some say contributes to deforestation.

Well, that is not the reaction this innocent presentation evoked. The next thing we know we have authorities losing their minds. We have the Education Ministry launching an investigation on the school for “spreading propaganda”, giving out a statement “The Ministry will not compromise with any propaganda and indoctrination in private institutions that tarnish the image and name of the country”.

We gave the Primary Industries Minister Teresa Kok describing the performance as “sowing hatred against palm oil plantations.” We even have the Secretary General at the Education Ministry hopping on the bandwagon, “The involvement of students in propaganda activities are in direct conflict with national policy and can affect the good name of the country.”

Who could have thought a bunch of seven- and eight-year olds dressed in costumes could illicit such a response? Moreover, isn’t shutting mouths of young children, affecting the good name of our country far more than the actual performance?

Now, I am not denying the importance of palm oil to our economy, we rely on the industry that brings us billions of dollars in foreign exchange and hundreds of thousands of jobs. But- we can appreciate an industry and also acknowledge it may have some bad negative effects on the environment that need to be looked at. And even if palm oil production does not lay a finger on our forests, how could expressing one’s opinions be against the law?

Let me remind you, freedom of speech is a right guaranteed in our Federal Constitution. It can be restricted, but only in order to prohibit the incitement of hatred if such hatred is likely to incite violence or crime, not as a mechanism against valid criticism on a private industry.

Now I highly doubt children dressed up as trees are going to cause the next riot. The fact that action is being taken against a school that dared to criticise not even a country, but a product and a private industry, is straight out bizarre.

I appreciate palm oil and the wealth and opportunities it has given to our country, but I also appreciate the government body respecting our free speech and allowing us to voice our views. We have the right to raise our children in an environment where we are not afraid to speak our minds, lest we hurt the feelings of a someone who can ‘take action’ at a whim.

*This is the personal opinion of the writer or organisation and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail.

Related Articles