What to do about ‘freedom from speech?’

Commentary by David Hutt
What to do about ‘freedom from speech?’ A Thai pro-democracy protester holds up the three-finger salute during a protest after Pheu Thai held a press conference announcing that the Move Forward Party (MFP) will no longer be part of the eight-party coalition at Pheu Thai Party's headquarters in Bangkok on Aug. 2, 2023.
[Lillian Suwanrumpha/AFP]

A recent survey from the Pew Research Center, ostensibly about the opinions of Buddhists and Muslims in South and Southeast Asia, offered a disheartening read to those of us who cherish free speech.

But the study also highlighted that it is wrong to think the only enemies of free speech are the region’s authoritarian governments. 

The pollsters asked respondents from four Southeast Asian states to choose between two statements: “People should be allowed to speak their opinions publicly even if they upset other people,” or “harmony with others is more important than the right to speak one’s opinion.”

Around two-thirds of respondents – 69% in Cambodia, 67% in Indonesia, and 64% in Singapore – chose harmony over free speech. Interestingly, 59% of Thais chose the opposite.  

It’s more straightforward, though not easy, to pick a fight with governments for their repression of free speech, as it is to argue against the common claims that free speech is an illusion or that democracies are just as censorious as authoritarian states.

What’s harder to comprehend, and more dangerous not to rebut, is the proposition that freedom of speech is undesirable and honesty is a species of antisocial behavior.

But that is what one confronts in Southeast Asia, vide the Pew survey.  

A Thai man prays in the rain during an all-religion prayer meeting for peace and harmony at the Lumpini park, in Bangkok in 2010. Thousands of residents gathered at dawn to pray for peace at sites across the Thai capital where people were killed and high rise buildings torched in two months of political violence. [Manish Swarup/AP]

I say it’s harder because one must realize that it is not just your governments who want to silence you; it’s also your neighbors.

None of this is palatable.

It’s far easier to think that all tyranny stems from way up high, in part because one has to get on in society with people who think differently and, also, because it provides a convenient excuse for inactivity. 

However, this isn’t a new realization.

In 2015, Pew conducted a global survey on people's attitudes towards free speech. Only 29% of Indonesians, for example, thought that people should say what they want without censorship and just 21% reckoned that internet use without censorship is important. 

What point is there in free speech if one is only allowed to say something uncontroversial or what everyone else already (appears) to think?

That’s not free speech; that’s repetition.

And repetition doesn’t change people’s opinions nor educate. Why not stick to what you thought at sixteen years old and never change your mind?

But in order to be allowed to question your established ideas, to educate yourself, you have to be presented with uncomfortable information in an uncomforting way – few people relish being told they’re wrong and that they have been wrong for years. 

I say “allowed” because that is at the core of free speech.

It is often assumed that the true victim of censorship is the person engaged in speaking. They are victims, but so, too, is everyone else.

If your thoughts are censored, then I am not able to hear them. If my thoughts are censored, you are not allowed to hear my opinions and judge them against your own.

As such, censorship makes each person a prisoner of their own thoughts and makes society barren silos.

Enforcing the will of the majority

I am not singling Southeast Asia out unfairly.The desire for “freedom from speech” is universal.

Indeed, the want for a “quiet life,” to be protected from discomforting truths, is as much in the Western consciousness, and increasingly so. 

It is the defining ethos of totalitarianism – a Western concept – and of almost all religions. Isn’t the founding tenet of Christianity, Judaism and Islam that Adam was wicked for giving up the “harmony” of Eden for a free life, and that all us apparent descents are still being punished for that “crime?”

It is often said that censorship is grounded in the need to protect minorities.

That, at least, is how social “harmony” is often defined in Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia; multiethnic countries with political systems that fracture on racial or religious lines.

However, time and time again what one finds in practice is that censorship is used to enforce the will of the majority over the minority. Worse, what this becomes is the assertion that harmony can only be protected by prosecuting the minority so that the majority does not engage in violence. 

Malaysia's then-police chief Khalid Abu Bakar warns journalists “Don't do anything or publish drawings or writing that can cause exasperation in the community,” Kuala Lumpur, Feb. 22, 2017. [Alexandra Radu/AP file photo]

There are numerous examples of this.

But to take a lesser-known one: In early 2017, a small Chinese-language daily newspaper in Malaysia ran a caricature of the president of the Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS) that was deemed by some to be anti-Islamic.

Shortly after the cartoon went public, admittedly to the newspaper's small readership of mainly ethnic-Chinese, a PAS state commissioner warned the newspaper not to forget what happened to the journalists of Charlie Hebdo, when 12 journalists were murdered at the French newspaper's Paris offices two years earlier.

“If you remember last time, there was a French newspaper that published a caricature that angered the whole Muslim world,” said Muhammad Fauzi Yusof, adding that the newspaper would be responsible for the “devastating” consequences.

Then-police chief Khalid Abu Bakar waded into the debate. “Don't do anything or publish drawings or writing that can cause exasperation in the community. We have to be careful with these things,” he instructed newspapers and journalists.

What do we make of this?

Obviously, it was not the Chinese-language newspaper, representing a minority, that threatened violence but the politician, from the majority, who told journalists that they could be assassinated en masse.

And what about the police chief?

He didn't arrest the politician for a threatening speech that suggested mass murder. Instead he told journalists to refrain from angering others, who happen to be the majority in Malaysia.

So who was being protected? Quite clearly the person who was threatening violence. 

Protecting the one that makes the threat

In Cambodia, the ruling party has for decades told the public quite explicitly that if it falls from power, the country would descend quickly back into the barbarism and anarchy of the 1970s Khmer Rouge days.

Note that those wishing to unseat the Cambodian People’s Party want to do so by peaceful and democratic means. Nonetheless, the ruling party’s warning is actually a threat.

If we, it says, lose power by the ballot, we will be the ones who will bring violence upon the country.

How much this is accepted by the public is questionable, although the “harmony” that Cambodian respondents referred to in the Pew survey must presumably have included this. 

Another inescapable fact is that the subjects that are taboo and off-limits in Southeast Asia, those cloaked in the need for “harmony,” tend to be matters that are of the utmost importance.

The role of Thailand’s monarchy, the apparent bastion of “Thai-ness,” for instance.

Indonesians and Malaysians are far more likely to oppose speech that is deemed offensive towards religious beliefs than many other nationalities, such as Filipinos and the Vietnamese, according to Pew’s 2015 survey. 

Cambodian People's Party supporters rally in Phnom Penh, July 21, 2023. The ruling party, it had warned that the country would descend back into the barbarism and anarchy of the Khmer Rouge days if it was not in power. [Heng Sinith/AP]

On the other hand, fewer Vietnamese (61%) think that people should be able to make public comments that criticize a government’s policies than Indonesians (73%) or Malaysians (63%).

Of course this is top-down, yet it also speaks to the fact that many people in those countries subscribe – perhaps unconsciously – to the same principle that these subjects ought to be off-limits and, indeed, are threats to “harmony”.

After all, governments make laws, and authoritarian governments make harsh laws. But whether they are enforced, and how the police behave, depends on the general mood in the country.

In Cambodia and Vietnam it is illegal to park on most pavements, but because everyone has done this for decades and no-one really kicks up a fuss, the police rarely enforce it. 

If large enough numbers of people were interested in freedom of speech, there would be more freedom of speech, even if the law forbids it.

However, it’s much simpler to assume the only problem is the autocrats.

David Hutt is a research fellow at the Central European Institute of Asian Studies (CEIAS) and a Southeast Asia columnist at The Diplomat. As a journalist, he has covered Southeast Asian politics since 2014. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the position of Radio Free Asia, a news site affiliated with BenarNews.


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