Free speech a ‘privilege’? Read the Constitution properly, rights advocates tell minister

Social activist Maria Chin Abdullah of electoral reform watchdog Bersih 2.0 went a step further and told the federal minister to resign if he was unable to comprehend the tenets of the country’s supreme law. — Picture by Saw Siow Feng
Social activist Maria Chin Abdullah of electoral reform watchdog Bersih 2.0 went a step further and told the federal minister to resign if he was unable to comprehend the tenets of the country’s supreme law. — Picture by Saw Siow Feng

KUALA LUMPUR, March 4 — Datuk Seri Salleh Said Keruak should learn how to read the law properly in order not to mislead less-informed Malaysians of their constitutional guarantees, rights advocates said after the communications and multimedia minister asserted free speech to be a “privilege”.

Social activist Maria Chin Abdullah of electoral reform watchdog Bersih 2.0 went a step further and told the federal minister to resign if he was unable to comprehend the tenets of the country’s supreme law.

“If he as a minister can’t understand the Constitution, then he should resign. He is a lawmaker,” Chin told Malay Mail Online.

She was responding to Salleh’s blog post yesterday in which the Sabah leader said Malaysians were treating the expression of their opinions as an “absolute right” rather than a “privilege“ that can sometimes be withdrawn if abused.

“This is the problem. We have these ministers re-reading the Constitution according to their own whims and fancies and this is confusing the people. This is not right,” the Bersih 2.0 chair said.

Chin insisted that freedom of expression was a guaranteed liberty under the Federal Constitution. Her view was supported by several other lawyers.

Civil liberties lawyer Syahredzan Johan said Salleh had simply “got it wrong”.

“It is a right that is guaranteed in the Federal Constitution. Of course, it is not absolute. No one argues that freedom of speech is absolute, it is with restrictions. But the restrictions must be reasonable,” he said.

Civil liberties lawyer Syahredzan Johan said Salleh had simply 'got it wrong'. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa
Civil liberties lawyer Syahredzan Johan said Salleh had simply 'got it wrong'. — Picture by Yusof Mat Isa

“Even if the Parliament passes something that curbs such freedoms, it is unconstitutional,” he added.

Another civil liberties lawyer, Melissa Sasidaran, labelled Salleh’s comment as “ignorant”.

“No one is saying that free speech is an absolute right. However, it is a fundamental right guaranteed to all citizens, not a privilege to be doled out to a select few or taken away when a speech displeases the powers that be,” she said.

She urged that the government stop making “constant threats to stifle ideas and opinions.”

Lawyer N. Surendran chided the minister for trying to “interpret” the Constitution.

“He cannot just write anything he feels like writing without referring to the Constitution properly. He should read the Constitution first,” the PKR politician who is also Padang Serai MP told Malay Mail Online.

“He is misleading the people,” Surendran added.

Salleh’s latest comment appear to defend the government move to block off domestic access to news portal The Malaysian Insider, ostensibly for publishing a news report citing anonymous sources that conflicted with an official statement by the national anti-corruption commission and which was deemed confusing to the public.

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