On the eve of the 2002 World Press Freedom Day, the parliamentary secretary to the Information Ministry, Senator Zainuddin Maidin was invited by the Utusan Melayu branch of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) to share his thoughts.

According to the former editor-in-chief of Utusan Malaysia , local media practitioners should avoid becoming dogs of Western media imperialists.

He said, Many of our journalism scholars are Americanised and thrive on the recognition of being called heroes of press freedom by Western countries when they are only being the dogs of Western imperialists.

Whether we agree with the unelected or never elected peoples representative or not, Zainuddin certainly has the right to speak his mind freely. Some may argue that his mind is rusty but that is not the point at all.

Besides needing secular entertainment, those of us who are unapologetically Westernised, Europeanised or Universalised, secular or holy, must defend his right to free speech as long as he does not cause violence or threatened to cause violence, as the Umno Youth did when it threatened to raze the Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall to the ground or the MCA Youth members throwing chairs at each other in a public place.

The right to free speech is guaranteed under Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, passed and proclaimed by the general assembly of the United Nations in 1948.

Under this universal, secular and liberal right, not only Zainuddin is entitled to express his opinions, others are similarly protected. The others include opponents to the boss of Zainuddin Maidin and his party; like the parliamentary opposition leader Fadzil Noor; president of Keadilan Dr Wan Azizah Ismail; DAP chairman Lim Kit Siang; PRM chairman Dr.Syed Husin Ali; and Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM) chairman Dr Nasir Hashim; and their supporters.

Similarly, under this universal, secular and liberal right to free speech, Lee Kuan Yew, Chin Peng, Syed Zahari, Tang Liong Hoong, Francis Seow and others are treated as equal human beings.

Affirming and defending the right of Zainuddin to free speech, however, do not mean that we have to agree with what he says.

Reciprocal right to free speech

On the contrary, as we have the similar, equal and reciprocal right to free speech, we could exercise the right to disagree with, and even condemn the former top dog of Utusan Malaysia who was once demoted in early 1990s for his parochial and obstinate opposition to the wider use of the English language.

Indeed, thanks to the Utusan Melayu branch of the National Union of Journalists (NUJ) which allows him to vent his reactionary frustration, we now know that the little old world of the stringer in Kedah when Said Zahari led the Utusan strike against Umnos takeover, is now gone with the winds of modernisation, post-modernisation and communication revolution.

Not only Dr.Mahathir Mohamad has now advocated wider use of English by Malaysians, especially Malays and Muslims, the top dogs of Kuala Lumpur, like Mahathir himself and defence minister, Najib Tun Razak, have flown, or are flying to Washington to meet and talk with the top dogs in the United States.

From many Westernised and American media, we now know that the top dogs of Kuala Lumpur are desperately seeking the recognition of being called friends and allies of the top dogs in the White House and Pentagon.

Whether Mahathir and Najib have become, according to the reasoning process and mechanism of Zainuddin, the dogs of Western and American imperialists are certainly a legitimate subject to domestic and democratic debate on foreign and defence policies.

Of course, if some of us just think Zainuddin is being nonsensical, we could also waive our right, at our own free will, to free speech and keep quiet and smile with emotional detachment.

To some Stoics and philosophical Taoists, it is the best way for us to maintain psychological health when we are bombarded with nonsensical noises from the insecurely rich and neurotically powerful.

JAMES WONG WING ON is chief analyst of Strategic Analysis Malaysia (SAM) which produces the subscriber-based political report, Analysis Malaysia . Wong is a former member of parliament (1990-1995) and a former columnist for the Sin Chew Jit Poh Chinese daily. He read political science and economics at the Monash University in Melbourne, Australia. While in Sin Chew , he and a team of journalists won the top awards of Malaysian Press Institute (MPI) for 1998 and 1999.

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