Freedom after Speech
Sanne van Oosten
Our favorite saying when visiting Malaysia is definitely: “In Malaysia we have freedom of speech, but what we don’t have is freedom after speech.” After uttering an opinion that doesn’t please the government you won’t be dragged out to court, but you will suffer other consequences. It might be harder to find a job or it might be harder to get a permit for your business. I found the saying freedom after speech thought-provoking. Can any country claim there to really be freedom after speech? Even if the opinion expressed is severely sensitive? Let me explain with a little example…
In the Sarawak Tribune I read an interesting article about the lagging economic power of the native Dajaks of Borneo. The article suggested that new affirmative action policies should be instated in order to boost their position in Malaysian society, just as has been done for the Bumiputera since the seventies. A few days ago I had just finished a critical blog about these affirmative action policies, so this article sparked my attention. But what really sparked my attention was the following quote:
“Inarguably, thanks to the New Economic Policy (NEP) instated forty years ago the position of the Malay people has strengthened, even if some people claim that this is not the case.”
What surprised me the most in this quote was the word “inarguably”. Inarguably? Isn’t everything arguable in one way or another? I hadn’t even ever used this word in any of my writings before, even though much of my academic writing is filled with words likethat in order to connect sentences and argumentations. I deeply believe that everything is arguable and I have repeatedly been taught so throughout my studies. In fact, when I read this article I had just finished writing a 1000 word blog in which I argued against the strength of this particular policy (read it here). What do you mean inarguably?
What I want to argue with this quote from the Sarawak Tribune is this: Freedom of speech is not only about being able to say what you want and knowing you won’t suffer any consequences from doing so. Freedom of speech is about knowing that everything is arguable. You can be a firm believer of a certain point of view but still know that others see this differently and would not agree with you. And most importantly: that their point of view is just as real as your point of view.
Sadly, the concept of a relative truthis not completely ingrained in any society I have ever come across. The Netherlands, and Amsterdam in particular, has a long history of firm believers and advocates of freedom of speech. For instance, the seventeenth century philosopher Spinoza pondered the idea of a relative truth and freedom of speech in light of the relative freedom of religion that was present in the Amsterdam of that time. But even though Amsterdam has known these ideas since the seventeenth century, even there, there are plenty of people who believe that certain things are inarguable, even though others truly contend otherwise.
For instance, there are plenty of touchy subject that are believed to be inarguable. If expressing these opinions, one could become quite inpopular, maybe even jeopardizing career opportunities. Imagine what would happen if one would stand up for pedophiles. Imagine what would happen if someone would show sympathy to Nazism, or even worse, deny the holocaust. An employer would think twice before offering such a person a job position. That makes me wonder, is freedom after speech anywhere to be found?
Even if there is freedom of speech in a country, this doesn’t have true value if journalists can still write words like “inarguably” without it being slashed by a copy editor or editor in chief. Of course, every news paper has a certain point of view in which articles are inevitably spinned, but stating so blatantly that something is inarguable even though a subject is highly controversial and many people would in fact argue otherwise is taking it to another level. Almost everything is arguable, no matter how much you personally disagree. Therefore, we should try to be as open minded as possible and offer people freedom after speech, no matter how much we disagree. Before this idea is ingrained in Malaysian society, or any society for that matter, freedom of speech is not yet completed.