Challenges Ahead: Preventing Hate Speech; Maintaining Freedom of Speech

My dear Subang folks,

As I write this article on the 28th of April, I have just recorded a video message for PeaceCon 2023, to be held in Washington DC on 3rd to 5th May. I was asked to speak on the topic of hate speech and the legislative challenges related to it, in the context of the Malaysian legislative history and experience.

In fact, I was asked to attend PeaceCon in person to represent Asean Parliamentarians for Human Rights (APHR) but I had to decline as I will be heading to the United Nations in New York, on the same dates for the 8th Multi-stakeholder Forum on Science, Technology and Innovation for the Sustainable Development Goals. I will be attending the Forum as the Science and Technology Working Group representative of the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), of which Parliament Malaysia is a member.

When asked by SJ Echo to write this article, I decided to reproduce my PeacCon video speech. The matters raised in this short speech is timely, as the unity government approaches the end of its first six months in office.  After six months, the prime minister and his cabinet members should be more settled in their offices and as such should start to pursue more vigorously the reforms promised to voters.

I am certain that calls and reminders for reforms will grow from many quarters and as your MP, I too will push harder for legislative reforms in Parliament. I hope my speech below will provide some guidance on what those reforms should look like.


PeaceCon 2023 Speech of Hon. Wong Chen, MP for Subang, Malaysia

My name is Wong Chen and I am the Member of Parliament for Subang, Malaysia. Thank you for the opportunity to address you in the capacity as a member of ASEAN Parliamentarians for Human Rights.

The topic of my speech is on how to prevent hate speech whilst maintaining freedom of speech via the use of legislative tools. I would like to share the Malaysian legislative experience on this matter and then suggest some improvements for all to consider.

To give a proper but quick context to our discussion here, you will need to understand two basic points about Malaysia and Malaysian politics. The first point is that Malaysia is ostensibly a democracy but we also have had one coalition winning successive elections since independence for 60 long years. This 60-year political monopoly was finally broken in 2018. However, since 2018 to date, we have also seen four governments coming to the fore. To say that Malaysia is now in a political transition period is not an exaggeration.

The current government led by Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim is a unity government with a progressive reform agenda. However, this agenda is facing realpolitik challenges of being a coalition partnership with other political parties, who may have different agendas. It is not wrong to say that we have a mountain of work ahead to improve and revamp our democracy and governance, and most importantly to fight systemic corruption.

The second point to bear in mind is that Malaysia is a diversely multiracial and multireligious country. The minorities are substantial and not token. The Malay bumiputera population are a majority at 62%, Chinese and Indian minorities are at 21% and 6% respectively. About 10% of the population are migrant workers.

So, to recap the two points; Malaysia has had a 60-year history of somewhat authoritarian rule and we have a very complex multiracial and multireligious society.

In that context, hate speech is a constant, real and existential threat to peace and racial harmony in Malaysia. Yet at the same time, racial and religious identification in politics, is also the majority norm. I belong to PKR, a multiracial political party, but many political parties in Malaysia are organised on racial and religious basis. And the dial on racial and religious bigotry and tensions increases during every election cycle.

Yet remarkably, successive governments have been able to maintain relative peace in Malaysia, save for the one dark incident of race riots in 1969. Many have asked me how did Malaysia achieve this racial harmony and peace against the odds? The answer is a strange combination of good economics and apathetic politics. The economic answer is the discovery of oil in the 1970s and the relative economic prosperity with liberalisation of the economy since the 1980s. With everyone having full stomachs and food on the table, harmonious peace was achieved.


On the flip side, I remember clearly my parents’ generation of having very apathetic outlook on politics, allowing for the erosion of their political rights for decades in return for that food on the table.  It is not ideal but it was a warped formula that worked at its place and time, in the 1970s to the 2000s.

So while political apathy and good economic growth provided a temporary peace dividend, let me now address quickly the matter of the use of legislation as effective tool against hate speech.

Previous Malaysian governments have passed many oppressive legislations to curb freedom of speech, mostly in the name of preventing the stirring up of racial and religious issues. If you want proof of the duality usage of laws, that laws can be used for good and also be abused, then Malaysia’s legislative history will make a fascinating case study. The truth is legislations are mere tools, and as with all tools, they can be used for good or bad.

This current Anwar Ibrahim unity government has inherited these laws which are and still in existence today. We have the printing press laws to curb independent journalism, vague and wide sedition laws, criminal and anti-terrorism laws that allow detentions without trial, and the Communications and Multimedia Act used to censor social media.

However, all these laws have a commonality; bad drafting. These laws grant extraordinary powers to ministers with minimal judicial review. The way these laws were drafted and rammed through Parliament, is a result of an inherent weakness in the Malaysian law-making process. The Malaysian Parliament passes laws without proper stakeholder consultation and without proper committee oversight.

In fact, the creation of departmental special select committees is a very recent phenomenon started in 2018, just five years ago. Yet today the administration and budget of Parliament is still under the control of the prime minister’s office.

So what are the valuable the lessons that I can share from the Malaysian experience?

Legislations are definitely tools but you can minimise abuses of power by ensuring these are properly drafted, with severe limitations to ministerial powers and full access to citizens to challenge such laws in courts. This in turn, also means that the judiciary should be completely independent and resourced properly. We will also need an active select committee system in Parliament to check the powers of the executive, an independent media. The promotion of civil society is also needed to build an eco-system to scrutinise and minimise abuses to legitimate free speech stemming from such laws.

For an even broader perspective, a country must continue to focus on economics, create a larger educated middle class and work harder to distribute wealth. This coupled by a good progressive education policy to emphasise diversity of race and religion as a strength, will help the next generation avoid the pitfalls of hate crime hence lessen the need to rely on legislative solutions.

On that final note, thank you for the opportunity to speak to you. I wish all Peacecon 2023 participants all the very best.