Freedom of speech becoming the norm
South China Morning Post Feb 4, 1999
OPINION: BY IAN STEWART
A NEW mood is abroad in Southeast Asia. People are talking more openly than before. They are speaking out on such topics as whether they should have freedom to say what they like, to write what they think and to hold discussions anywhere they choose.
The readiness of people to chat freely on the telephone about politics or - anything else - is a striking development.
The change is partly a result of the economic crisis, which has emboldened people to be more critical of their governments. But it is also due to the boom preceding the recession, which led to improved education, wider access to television and foreign publications, and more people travelling abroad.
Governments in some Southeast Asian countries have argued the freedoms of the press, speech and assembly practised in the West are inappropriate in the Asian milieu. They pointed to rural poverty, backwardness, racial and religious sensitivities and other supposedly singular characteristics, belittling their people, to justify authoritarian controls. It is a self-serving argument a growing number of their citizens are challenging.
A refrain heard throughout Southeast Asia when governments attempt to conceal facts or fudge the findings of inquiries into political or economic mismanagement is: "Do they think we're stupid?"
More and more people are telling their governments not to treat them like idiots, and some authorities - though not the hard-core hold-outs in Burma and Vietnam - are being pushed into making concessions.
Not long ago a well-known Indonesian journalist used to give his articles a rating of "one to five calls". A "five-call story" meant he expected to be in serious trouble when it appeared, receiving a dressing-down by telephone from up to five government officials.
Too many five-call stories could lead to government pressure on an editor to dismiss a reporter or the withdrawal of a newspaper's licence. In the increasingly intolerant climate, the fire went out of the Indonesian media.
Much changed with the departure of president Suharto. Previously-banned publications are back, competing with new titles eager to benefit from the more relaxed attitude.
Subtle shifts are taking place in Singapore and Malaysia, where journalists are constantly testing the boundaries.
Prodded by officials to give full coverage to the trial of Anwar Ibrahim, the former deputy prime minister, Malaysian newspapers have crossed political and social barriers, opening discussion on a wide range of related issues, many of which embarrass the authorities.
Singapore, bastion of what it likes to call Asian values, is also feeling change. The Straits Times gave prominence to a commentary proposing a relaxation of existing laws on speech and assembly by members of a group called The Roundtable. The writers said the Singapore constitution enshrined the right to free speech.
"That right must be respected, and only curtailed in those instances where the regulating authorities can show that allowing free speech will cause harm," they said.
Distancing themselves from opposition politician Chee Soon Juan, who has been testing the constitutional limits of free speech in the courts, they proposed establishing places where people could "speak their minds without first having to obtain permission to do so".
In Davos, Switzerland, this week, Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew expressed concern about the effect on the republic's cohesion of Singaporeans who picked up "social norms from abroad".
But free speech, as The Roundtable sees it, is not a norm from abroad but a home-grown constitutional right.
Published in the South China Morning Post. Feb 4, 1999