The truth shall set you free

We live in challenging times. Not only are we faced with economic and social difficulties, the political situation too has become difficult.

Sep 11, 2014

Anil Netto

By Anil Netto
We live in challenging times. Not only are we faced with economic and social difficulties, the political situation too has become difficult.

The bailout — or restructuring, if you prefer the euphemism — of Malaysia Airlines and the many question marks over 1MDB are symptoms of a larger malaise that has affected our country. These are aggravated by the ethnic and religious posturings of ethno- religious groups.

Now sedition charges have been slapped on a string of critics, activists and now even those writing for the media, and this latest clampdown has caused considerable unease.

It was only two years ago, in 2012, that the prime minister had pledged to repeal the Sedition Act and have it replaced with — presumably more democratic — national harmony legislation. (This move seemed to be in line with global trends towards greater democracy. In 2007, for instance, New Zealand repealed its sedition law. In the UK, sedition and seditious libel were abolished as common law offences in 2010 (although sedition by foreigners remains.)

But before the Racial and Religious Hate Crimes Bill, the National Harmony and Reconciliation Bill, and the National Harmony and Reconciliation Commission Bill can become law in Malaysia, the Sedition Act has once again been used.

The use of sedition legislation is a throwback to 1948 when the colonial administration enacted the law to deal with critics of colonial rule.

To overcome the challenges facing the nation, Malaysia needs more sober and serious discussion on the issues of the day. This can only come about if there is a certain freedom for the people to speak their minds on issues. There is a distinction between freedom of expression and hate speech.

Hate speech is clear to anyone who comes across it, and few people would condone it. But legitimate criticism should be allowed in any democracy worth its name.

In many countries in the past, sedition laws have been used to outlaw legitimate dissent.

They have been used against public intellectuals in particular. The British even charged Gandhi with sedition. Each time it is used, it sends a chill down the spine of the masses, discouraging them from the legitimate right to freedom of expression as enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

The truth can be uncomfortable and, often, simply inconvenient.

In John 18, we have this memorable conversation between Jesus and Pontius Pilate, the “Prefect of Judaea”.

Jesus said, “... I was born for this, I came into the world for this, to bear witness to the truth; and all who are on the side of truth listen to my voice.”

“Truth?” said Pilate. “What is that?”

For Pilate, the truth seemed irrelevant when compared to the larger political issues of power-play and 'stability' as the local representative of the Roman Empire at the politically sensitive time of the Jewish Passover, an occasion to celebrate liberation from oppression.

But the truth is priceless and stands in contrast to the Evil One, who is described as the “father of lies” (John 8:44).

Indeed, many have paid a price for speaking the truth. People like Rosa Parks, who refused to give up her seat in the ‘coloured’ section of the bus to make way for standing white passengers. She was arrested and charged. But her commitment towards the truth set in motion a chain of events in the struggle of the civil rights movement in the United States.

You may be jailed or arrested. But the paradox is that the truth cannot be incarcerated. Instead, as Jesus says elsewhere in John 8, “If you make my word your home, you will indeed be my disciples; you will come to know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”

And what is his word? The imperative to practise love, righteousness (justice), compassion especially towards the poor, the oppressed and those excluded from society.

No one can silence voices that speak the truth, for indeed, the truth shall set us all free.

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