There have recently been innumerable public statements, from the ministerial level to the general public, which assert that various people - or everyone in the case of the most recent statement from our deputy inspector-general of police - should stop discussing various subjects deemed inappropriate and dangerous.
The ambiguity of these statements casts doubt on Malaysian understanding of the principles involved in free speech.
Free speech cannot be either legislated or regulated by such terminology as ‘responsible’, ‘non-divisive’ or ‘sensitive’. The public relations effect of government officers attempting to forbid discussion of certain topics is basically dangerous and most likely counter-productive because it only encourages people to rebel against control.
Police especially should never be put in the position of enforcing notions of ‘divisiveness’ or ‘non-divisiveness’ without proper, detailed rules with review by competent authorities, assuming that expression needs to be regulated to this degree in our society.
As Thomas Jefferson so eloquently put it, government has no authority over the thoughts of the citizenry. It is only when such thoughts are expressed in actions, deleterious to the public good - either by direct physical confrontation or ‘inciting’ words which may probably result in such action - that government can take action.
And in order to guarantee that this fundamental principle of free speech is secured, we must promote an effective and respectful network of communications among the major races and religions residing in this nation.
ISA detentions destroy public trust
Until such time as Muslims can produce an acceptable model of Islamic governance, the government should not even try to regulate and discipline what we citizens are thinking, or even saying.
The definition of sedition has little meaning in a society in which so many thoughts and sayings are pronounced seditious by officials who may feel threatened by such talk; the word becomes political-speak for "you are dangerous to us and our established order". ISA detentions can be particularly destructive of public trust by the very virtue of this component.
Inter-faith dialogue in the service of ‘common cause’ is always welcome to Muslims so long as it does not intrude upon matters of faith or rituals. This is because the differences between Islam and other religions, as for example glossed over by the principles of secularised Islam, are very difficult to reconcile, but by discussion, understanding evolves and respect for the beliefs of others grows.
Inter-racial dialogue, on the other hand, comes much closer to fulfilling the Quranic verse which explains creation of the different races and ethnic groups as a means of interest to each other and learning from one another, rather than confrontation. Malaysia must prove Samuel Huntington wrong in his thesis of ‘civilisational clash’.
Inter-faith diologue more difficult
Nowadays, individual identity relates primarily to culture, whereas religious belief constantly crosses cultural lines. Therefore, dialogue among the cultures here in Malaysia should be organised and promoted according to ethnicity rather than religiosity.
We should have no shame in relating to others from the viewpoint of our culture, whereas inter-faith dialogue is very much more difficult and must be approached more delicately and with both faith in your beliefs and openness to respect the faith of others.
The rules of courtesy should regulate our inter-ethnic relations precisely because almost no one can agree about the various priorities followed in the name of religion. If government does not wish to follow a policy of "forced assimilation", it must promote inter-racial dialogue at every opportunity, in order to avoid degeneration into religious conflict.
It must also have a similar strategy on religious issues to encourage an understanding of this component of the different cultures. We do not interfere with each other's religion, and we follow our Quranic admonition to approach each other with sincere interest, which especially implies full personal security. There is no other way to achieve civilised life.
AZRIL MOHD AMIN is a Kuala Lumpur-based lawyer and the vice-president of Muslim Youth Movement of Malaysia (Abim). The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the institution to which he is affiliated.