When critique is criminalised

Opinion  |  Azly Rahman
Published:  |  Modified:

COMMENT | When the Multimedia Super Corridor was created in the mid-1990s, during Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s first tenure as prime minister, the rakyat was promised that the internet would not be censored. Thirty years later, it is still largely uncensored, nor is any grand governmental filter like China’s Green Dam firewall put in place.

I was a keen observer of the impact of digital communications technologies on the degree of how nation-states are deconstructed by the power of the technologies that shrink time and space and put distance to death. I wrote a dissertation on this topic, with the birth of Cyberjaya as a case study of hegemony and utopianism in an emerging ‘cybernetic Malaysia’.

Today, the internet in Malaysia is king, the monarch of misinformation but also messenger of good things, delivered instantaneously. What kind of messiah the internet – the most personalising and democratising tool ever invented – will turn out to be we do not know.

How then is a new government – that promised clean, efficient and trustworthy governance – deal with the inherent contradiction of wanting to allow citizens to tell the truth on the one hand, but refusing to be voted out by the tsunami of critiques on anything, on the other?

In cyberspace, on a daily basis, criticisms are mounted as if a great war is brewing. As if a prelude to the yet another storming of our Bastille. In other words, Pakatan Harapan cannot always hide behind security laws in the age of greater and more massive free speech as practised by its citizens, especially those who voted for change – real, radical change – and not for some new regime that lies through its teeth.

Critical mass

How do we then critique the monarchy, kleptocracy, theology, and ideology – at a time when the powers-that-be seem to be increasingly panicky with the speed by which things are going?

This is a Habermasian question of public space, of “defeudalisation”, and of the way we educate citizen internet vigilantes to exercise free speech in an increasingly authoritarian world.

Consider the scenario the last few weeks. Netizens are getting hauled to the police station for passing comment on the king who abdicated. Not very nice things were said to the monarch.

Pro-monarchy netizens are in an informational war with those angry and dissatisfied with the king who did not tell the country why he went on leave for a few weeks, only to find out later that he was allegedly attending to his own wedding. A racial-antagonistic dimension of this can be discerned...

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