How would you describe status of freedom of expression in Malaysia?
It’s worsening. As I write this the National Security Council Bill is being rushed through Parliament. Among other things, it grants emergency powers to the executive without their having to declare their use. I anticipate that the Sedition Act will also be used more frequently to curb dissent as that seems to be the pattern over the past two years, especially given the rising dissatisfaction towards the government.
As someone working on digital expression, how have these challenges impacted on your life/work?
I fear more, but I try to resist that. And given how it appears there’s very little that anyone can do to change things, (save for some drastic systemic transformation at a mass electoral scale), I can only keep speaking out as a concerned citizen. So it keeps me sharper, and more tuned into local issues. Indifference is no longer an option. In the meantime we will keep holding our forums and reaching out, utilising whatever space we can engage with, whether online or offline.
What elements of the situation do you find particularly troubling?
The rise of religious fundamentalism, especially at the expense of the rights of religious minorities is something that troubles me. It’s a problem that runs through our entire social fabric. You see it at the levels of policy, education, and even within families. For example, the sectarian and prejudicial vitriol in official sermons at some of our biggest mosques is becoming more frequent. It’s all the more troubling when we hear the same sentiments amplified by our ministers.
Malaysia’s longer standing tradition of cultural dynamism and openness is under threat every single day.
How are you tackling this challenge? What needs to change?
I encourage critical and open conversations. That’s Projek Dialog’s contribution, through our platforms and forums. I tell people, we need to talk about this. We can’t just let it happen unaddressed.
That’s democracy in practice: questioning, probing, responding, provoking. It’s not always pleasant. I see a lot of disagreements and stumbling blocks, especially when it concerns matters relating to the role of religion in governance. But truthfully I also see avenues of hope, however small.
People, growing more empathetic, despite their hardened differences. Dialogue is a lot about learning to feel together as much as it is about gathering facts. Things will become more open than they were before, however minimally. That’s a change happening at a micro-level and at the rate things are going, that’s something to affirm.
What can other human rights defenders, in Malaysia and worldwide, do to support you?
A lot of our media is in English. So I urge all our friends and partners to convey their solidarity by sharing what’s happening in Malaysia to their circles and communities. Publicity always helps, and Malaysia, for all its problems, still somehow cares about its international image.
An international platform where our issues are heard will go a long way in letting the state know that it’s being watched in turn.