Writer: Lee Hwok Aun
Published: Fri, 17 Aug 2012
My secondary schoolmates gathered recently for a reunion. Many of us hadn’t met in 20 years, and in some cases couldn’t match names to faces.
There were of course the weight gainers, and those who have shed a few pounds. A bunch had sleeker eyewear than the gigantic-rimmed goofiness of the early 1990s; a few had lasered away their spectacles.
We reconnected and relived those happy, barrier-free days, chatting, bantering and guffawing the night away. Then, amidst the cacophony, one fella said something that struck me: I wasn’t sure about your face – but I recognise your voice.
Yes, there is something enduring and powerful about one’s voice. Our voices identify, connect, empower and harmonise us.
To have a distinct, shared and heard voice – including in sign language – is a key element of personal relationship.
And I have to say, of development and democracy as well.
The United Nations Development Programme’s Human Development Reports have highlighted how economic growth, where it is not inclusive, fails to foster human development.
It works both ways. Lack of development in human capabilities and freedoms can also constrain economic growth.
Inclusive growth generates good jobs, promotes justice and creates a sense of belonging. It gives voice to the people.
More and more, Malaysians are demanding a bigger voice in the affairs of this nation.
At the same time, our pathway to a more advanced economy and mature society increasingly depends on exercising that voice to hold government accountable, to monitor public funds and to check against greed.
We are in the thick of a great contest over the voices that get to speak and be heard in the Malaysian public square.
PKR’s strategic director Rafizi Ramli, who has been instrumental in exposing the National Feedlot Corporation fiasco, is being prosecuted for disclosing bank account information that are protected by secrecy clauses in the Banking and Financial Institutions Act (BAFIA).
Rafizi is assuredly voicing the suspicions and frustrations of countless Malaysians who are fed up with chronic corruption, dishonesty and abuse of the public trust, backed by crisp investigative work and evidence.
The authenticity of what he has disclosed is not being challenged; he is prosecuted only for releasing certain private information to the public domain.
Does law enforcement serve private or public interest? Will voices that confront power be guaranteed space for a fair hearing? Will they be muffled by legal proceedings, or gagged by official urgings to quietly report misdeeds committed by people in power to the not entirely independent authorities (like the MACC) which report to the people in power?
We wait to see the trial of this curious summoning of the otherwise mundane BAFIA law. Other moves by the government, though, show hints of creeping state control and arbitrary power over peoples’ voices.
The amendments to Section 114A of the Evidence Act, passed in April and gazetted on July 31, outline multiple and breathtakingly loose ways persons or persons in disguise can be “presumed” guilty of publishing or re-publishing content, “unless the contrary is proved”.
Kim Jong-Un and other despots might want to take note. No confessions need to be extracted; presumption takes care of business.
Of course there is lots of nonsense, malice and slander out there, especially on the Internet.
Just as there is plenty of lively conversation and constructive debate, plus credible exposés of corruption, fraud and dubious features of the electoral roll. But there are far better and fairer ways to sift through the messy mix than by spooking any party associated with any posted comment with the threat of being presumed guilty unless proven innocent.
Access to information and protection of informants, especially where it serves the public good, requires a legal mandate.
Over 80 countries around the world have instituted freedom of information laws. Public documents are the main focus, but in some countries the law also binds private companies involved with government contracts or licences.
Among the usual suspects are high income regions of Europe, North America, and Northeast Asia. But there are also upper middle types like Brazil and Mexico.
It’s clearly possible for countries at similar levels of development as ours to broaden the right to seek information, as well as to express opinions.
Selangor under Pakatan has made a start, with a significant but limited freedom of information law.
Under the BN administration at the federal level - where it really matters - this remains one Janji Dinanti.