Insults and the 'new Malaysia'

Deborah Chow Tan


LETTER | On Feb 27, 2019, less than a year after Pakatan Harapan came into governance, a 68-year-old jobless man was charged in the Sessions Court for insulting the Prophet Muhammad via a Facebook post.

Online news portals showed the offender, a Chinese man in a yellow T-shirt, secured by three policemen, hands cuffed behind him as one does a criminal. The offensive post cannot be found on his Facebook page. Instead, his page is filled with hate speech, threats and users sharing his personal details such as his home address.

In “Malaysia Baru” (new Malaysia) the tradition of taking punitive action against non-Muslims who insult the Prophet continues. PKR leader Anwar Ibrahim was quoted saying that insulting the Prophet was a “stupid and wicked thing to do, and of no benefit to the country. If there are people who think this means freedom (of expression) and a liberal attitude, they are misguided” and he called for stern action to be taken.

“Fellow feeling is the cornerstone of humanity”. This includes respect and empathy for our fellow human beings. It also includes growing into becoming a member of society. Part of growing up is understanding that along life’s journey, someone, somewhere, is going to say something that offends you and the solution is not violence nor dragging them to court just because your feelings are hurt or your beliefs challenged.

The JyllandsPosten and Charlie Hebdo iconoclasm controversy taught us that offence is a dangerous thing when coupled with an “us versus them” mentality. Offence, when it comes to religion, has to be a learned trait.

What would the Prophet do? We all have that one senior citizen in our lives who upon learning to use a smartphone, sets up a Facebook account with the help of their children or grandchildren. The one who spams WhatsApp groups with nonsense information such as mangosteens being the cure for cancer. No matter how many times we sit them down and tell them that one of these days, they are going to be in trouble for sharing information that isn’t true, they continue doing it anyway.

And we know why. We know they don’t know how to look up references and verify information from reliable sources. We know they believe everything they read on the Net. We know that a lot of them don’t have a good grasp of English or Malay. And this is not to say that ignorance is an excuse. This is to say, a little understanding would be nice. Not everything that is offensive comes from bad intent or malice.

The Quran records how the Prophet rose above enmity and insults, repaying evil with graciousness, kindness and mercy. If the Prophet were to be here today, would he choose to see the Facebook post as an insult or as an opportunity to spread kindness and understanding?

Would he choose the “us versus them” narrative (which is the actual threat to the nation) or the one that understands that the generation before us has not had the opportunity to be educated the way this generation has been?

Are we really doing what the Prophet would want us to do or are we acting out our own feelings?

The easy way to respond to all this would be to shut down the above line of reasoning by citing the law. It is so easy to hide behind what the law says. But what are laws set up for if not to ensure that humans are justly protected?

In this “new Malaysia”, in this brave new world, are we going to repeat old patterns and ways of doing things mindlessly or should we be putting more thought into what it really takes for us to be truly united?

A unity where we aren’t hauling each other to court but encouraging conversation, one where we lead with reason instead of emotion, one where we stop insulting each other and pay attention to our Facebook posts because we care about each others’ feelings and not because we are afraid to be charged in court.

The new government definitely has bigger fish to fry - fixing what the previous government has corrupted and sullied. But these issues, such as hauling a 68-year-old jobless man to court because a group of people were offended by a Facebook post, are the foxes that spoil the vineyard.

The new government has to step up. We all have to step up. Let us not cruise on autopilot with old rules and patterns and an “us versus them” approach.

This is a clean slate, this is a new beginning, this is a brave new world. Let’s rewrite our story. Even the small parts of it. Even the difficult parts of it.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.