Freedom to offend
to which the less powerful members of organisations and institutions such as the family accept and expect power to be distributed unequally. Countries’ high power distance may observe traits such as those in authority openly demonstrating their rank, politics being prone to totalitarianism and class divisions within society being accepted. Based on the study, society’s power inequality in Malaysia is endorsed by followers as much as its leaders.
Malaysians are highly intolerant when this delicate balance is tipped over, preferring not to rock the boat. A recent example is when nine Australian men were charged for public nuisance when they stripped down to reveal underwear with the Malaysian flag design. Or the four tourists who stripped naked on Mount Kinabalu. Malaysians responded harshly by saying they are disrespectful to local morals and customs. Public morality is held in high regard here.
Contrast this to how Malaysians responded when our foreign diplomat was charged with burglary and assault with intent to rape after following a 21-year-old woman to her home, or when a Malaysian student was sentenced to jail in the UK for possessing over 30,000 images and videos of child pornography. These were actual serious crimes, and yet there were Malaysians who felt sorry for them, saying we should bring them back and pardon them. The Malaysian High Commission originally sought diplomatic immunity for Rizal – and Mara initially supported their scholar to give him a chance because he was a “smart student”. Where was our public morality then?
In fact, someone who believes in liberty and freedom is not necessarily someone who calls for public nudity, free sex or public immorality. This is the wrong definition of the term liberty. In fact, our very Rukunegara has the term liberal in it: “Our nation, Malaysia, being dedicated to ensuring a liberal approach to her rich and diverse cultural traditions”.
What does “a liberal approach” in this context actually mean? It involves several key concepts, chief of which is individual liberty, which can be loosely defined as the belief that each human being is endowed with the faculties of the mind and capacity to reason. The concept of liberty presupposes a living, purposive, choosing human being. Second, the rule of law must also apply, where the government as well as individuals and private entities are equally accountable under the law. These laws should be applied evenly, ethically and justly in a fair, accessible and efficient manner.
In examining public morality while applying the principles of individual liberty and the rule of law, one might argue that an individual has the liberty of free speech to the extent that it does no harm on another individual. John Stuart Mill in his book On Liberty argued that “The only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others” – this is known as the harm principle. The only actions that can and should be prevented are those that create harm.
This is distinct from the offence principle. Harm is something that would injure the rights of someone else or set back important interests that benefit others. An offence, on the other hand, is something that we would say “hurts our feelings”. An offence causes discomfort but causes no harm. Offences are not universal, as what hurts someone’s feelings may not hurt another person’s feelings. And at the same time, there is the principle of ethical conduct and personal responsibility too – the golden rule of not imposing on others what we don’t want imposed on us. We should not be afraid of having differences of opinion. This is to be expected in any democracy of diverse people.
What is therefore important is that the state, or government, applies the rule of law to its citizens so that people are able to freely