The years of living witlessly


“CANNOT brain this” is a popular, mocking expression used by some Malay youths when coming across something unbelievably stupid or beyond comprehension.

It is probably most apt, at this point, to be used in grappling with the absurdity of the announcement that all filming, even personal ones shared on social media, requires a licence from the National Film Development Corp (Finas).

The minister in charge is currently being trolled on social media and mocked with questions ranging from whether they need a licence for recipes, cats and cooking videos, to whether the minister himself had obtained a licence for a short video clip of his function that he had uploaded on Twitter.

Even the prime minister (PM) is not spared — his move to encourage a local Youtuber who became popular for her cooking recipe videos — is now mockingly questioned as to whether he had encouraged an illegal activity.

While all these developments are expressions of opposition or rather dissatisfaction that a minister dared to suggest the application of such legislation, more of concern is the message that the announcement is conveying.

It is no secret that the announcement is made in direct relation to the controversial Al Jazeera’s documentary “Locked Up in Malaysia’s Lockdown”, which had been described by the authorities as misleading and intended to put Malaysia in a very bad light.

Aired at a time when public sentiment against illegal immigrant workers is quite high, the documentary seems to have touched a raw nerve among quite a number of Malaysians.

It had prompted the authorities to launch an investigation into the documentary and the Al Jazeera team was interviewed by the police. Reportedly, a foreign worker who shared his opinion in the documentary, which depicted the harsh treatments received by illegal immigrants, had his work permit revoked.

All these are part of the reactions to the documentary and the latest bit about the need for Finas licensing is at best an overreaction on the part of the authorities.

But at worst, it can be an attempt to regulate public opinion on social media and that is a matter of grave concern.

In the couple of years since the change of government following the general polls in May 2018, Malaysia enjoyed a stretch of good run vis-à-vis its ratings on press freedom and freedom of expression.

Even the unelected government that came into power in early March caught the tail end of the rise in these ratings.

While these ratings may not mean much to some, but it does provide the nation and its citizenry a sense of pride that the co-existence between the government and governed has reached a level of mutual regards that imposition of overbearing and overarching restrictive legislation has become irrelevant and misplaced in such a modern set-up.

It can of course be argued that there are those who abuse these freedoms, but there are ample legislations that can be used for the specifics and by and large, the citizenry would not froth nor shout that these freedoms had been abused when applied on such individuals.

Similarly, in the case of Al Jazeera — it would have sufficed for the authorities to explain itself, expose the unbalanced, unfair or even outright lies that the documentary may have churned, and if push comes to shove, seek legal remedies.

In fact, that is what some sections of the citizenry expect of its political leaders when dealing with the international media — to take them on and expose them for not keeping up to the standards they claim to represent.

A good example would have been the threat by a former PM, when he was in office, of suing an international publication for reports alleging him of financial shenanigans on an upcoming Tuesday. If he had made good the threat, he would today be able to use that to shore up his claim of innocence or of defamation.

He never made good of his threat but today, he had made good of the social media to rebrand himself — from hero to zero to “Bossku” — an achievement by any standards, though it reflected how the social media could be manipulated to swing public opinion pendulum despite trails of evidence of wrongdoings keep steadily emerging.

Curtailing such abuses through wide-ranging legislations would not be the solution. Exposing the culprits and abusers through similar mediums and taking to the laws on specific, outright abuse of these freedoms would probably be the best remedy.

Regardless, freedom of expression is precious for both ends of an issue and any attempt to heavy-handedly regulate these platforms are regressive steps that would, without doubt, impact the future of the nation in its entirety.

It has to be said that dependency on legislations and regulations to counter ill-intents and ill-wills are reflections of insecurities, underpinned by the limitations of thoughts.

It is actually a no-brainer to figure that out.

Shamsul Akmar is the editor of The Malaysian Reserve.