The Malaysian Bar's International Malaysia Law Conference ("IMLC") 2018 took place from 14 to 17 Aug 2018 at The Royale Chulan Kuala Lumpur.
by Boo Sha–Lyn, Bar Council Secretariat
“I want to help this Government to rebuild the nation by criticising them. … I will provoke thinking; you have changed the political party, but you also have to change the mindset (of the people) — only then, can you achieve nation–building,” said Zulkiflee Sm Anwar Ulhaque (Zunar), political cartoonist, at the Freedom of Speech and Expression: A New Malaysian Perspective on the Challenges of a Post–Truth Age plenary session on 14 Aug 2018, the opening day of IMLC 2018.
In this lively session featuring distinguished speakers — Dato’ Mah Weng Kwai, Commissioner with the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (“SUHAKAM”), former Court of Appeal Judge, and past President of the Malaysian Bar (2001–2003); Richard Naidu, Head of the Commercial Group in Fiji’s Munro Leys; Fahmi Reza, political graphic designer, street artist and documentary film–maker; and Zunar — and moderated by Muhammad Rafique Rashid Ali from the Law Practice of Rafique, it was undeniable that the journey for freedom of speech and expression in Malaysia has been fraught with challenges.
Zunar and Fahmi Reza spoke with zest and humour of their experiences of the persecution they had faced under the previous administration of the Barisan Nasional Government. They collectively shared the importance of recognising the role of art as a political weapon in the face of widespread oppression and corruption, not only in criticising the Government of the day but also in exposing different forms of art to the public without the fear of repercussion from the State. They also discussed the function of art as a catalyst in bringing about change in the mindset of individuals.
Meanwhile, Richard Naidu offered an interesting perspective in looking at freedom of speech and expression, not merely from the angle of this freedom being a fundamental right, but also as a form of ultimate pragmatism, highlighting that countries that are at the top of the quality–of–life index are those that allow and encourage such rights. According to him, the exercise of free speech and expression promotes good accountability from those who govern the nation, as well as stimulates an economy of creative and innovative citizens.
The speakers also debated the limits of free speech, acknowledging that no right is absolute. Dato’ Mah called for the ratification of the six core international human rights instruments, as these would be good benchmarks for the new Government to work towards.
He wrapped up the session on a positive note, commending the Government for its recent efforts in tabling a bill to repeal the controversial Anti–Fake News Act 2018, in addition to its promise to review other laws such as the Official Secrets Act 1972, the Whistleblower Protection Act 2010, and the Witness Protection Act 2009. In conjunction with the proposed introduction of a Freedom of Information Act, these efforts auger well for free speech and expression in the country. As said by both Zunar and Fahmi Reza, if the Government is truly distancing itself from the practices of the previous administration, it must be committed to repeal oppressive and repressive laws.