Pondering Freedom of Speech during Ramadan

I love British comedy: dry, witty and deep. However, even with the help of subtitles, some of the time, I still don’t understand the jokes. I would need interpretation. My husband has become fed up because I keep interrupting him, and he would reply, “Don’t worry. You won’t get it.” or “It’s not worth explaining.”

I remember when I first watched British comedies 14 years ago, I was shocked with horror what comedians were allowed to say in public. They freely poked fun of the Pope and the Queen, made rude jokes about themselves, politicians, people with disabilities, or made sarcastic jokes about religions. I constantly told my husband — No, in Malaysia or Thailand or Singapore or China, you definitely can’t say this, this, this, this……, using horrid stories about judicial caning, death sentence and disappearance as solid evidence.

My husband will never understand my fear of total freedom of speech.

Being the youngest in a typical Chinese family. A family of 10.

Being the youngest in a typical Chinese family

I grew up in a culture that guarding my words was important. I grew up in Malaysia, surrounded by Muslims, Hindus, and Chinese of all religions. Each group has its unique tradition, taboos and belief, and I learnt naturally to pick up cues of what to say or what not to say to different groups of people. We learnt to live harmoniously by accurately understanding our boundaries. We embraced peace, not trouble.

I had fear.

I’m very used to living within boundaries since birth.  As the youngest child in a traditional hierarchical Chinese family, I must show filial piety to my parents and respect my elder siblings. Obedience is a great value. Silence is gold.

Do We Need Boundaries?

Recently in Malaysia, a bad joke went terribly wrong. Sex bloggers Alvin Tan and Vivian Lee were charged and imprisoned without bail after they had posted on their Facebook page a photo offensive to Muslims. (Note: Out of respect, I decided not to publish the image on my blog.)

The picture featured the couple enjoying a pork stew, locally known as Bak Kut Teh, while greeting Muslims for Ramadan. (Note: Bak Kut Teh –肉骨茶, literally, meat (traditionally pork), bone/ribs, tea. The fragrant dish is cooked using Chinese herbs, not tea, but the rich dish is normally consumed with tea.)

Bak Kut Teh - a famous Chinese pork dish in Malaysia and Singapore. Image by Choo Yut Shing via

Bak Kut Teh – a famous Chinese pork dish in Malaysia and Singapore. Image by Choo Yut Shing via Flickr

The text accompanying their photo reads, “Happy Breaking Fast with Bak Kut Teh, aromatic, tasty and appetising!” They also put a halal, or permissible, logo on the post.

The couple later apologised profusely and asked for forgiveness. However, it was too late. Damage had been done.

Total Freedom of Speech?

This court case has been bothering me. Should the sex bloggers have enjoyed total freedom of speech? Was their act punishable since they later apologised so unreservedly? This couple were ignorant and stupid enough to post such an irritating photo online. As a non Muslim, I felt the greeting was in bad taste and as a Malaysian Chinese, I was almost ashamed by their insensitive act.

Growing up in Malaysia, I learnt a lot about taboos. I may not know their origins, but I respect the people who hold their belief and preserve their ways of life. As a non Muslim in Malaysia, we observe our own tradition and belief and we have total freedom to eat pork. This young couple are modern and educated — the man used to be a law student at the National University of Singapore with an ASEAN scholarship. I’m baffled why they had ever considered their greeting as humour.

What’s freedom of speech? Lorelle has a thought provoking post: Stand up for Freedom of Speech. She uses the comedian George Carlin as a model to show how fearlessly the comedian had fought with the US government for freedom of speech over seven tiny English words – mostly boring one syllable words with plosive sounds.

Total freedom?  Image of a kite by sea turtle via Flickr

Total freedom?
Image by sea turtle via Flickr

In the UK, last year, the Blackadder and Mr Bean star Rowan Atkinson also defended freedom of speech, for the Reform Section 5 campaign. His full speech is in my previous post: What is ‘censoriousness’ according to Rowan Atkinson?

Lorelle stressed that “Freedom of speech does not mean you can say anything you want. It means that you have rights and responsibilities towards the words you use in public.” This is exactly the advice we tend to tell young people, however, I often found this statement ambiguous. What can and can’t you really say? Are there boundaries? If so, what’re the boundaries? Who sets the boundaries? Should there be universal freedom of speech or boundaries?

Can Freedom of Speech and Harmony Co-exist?

This is a huge topic that I don’t even dream of finding an answer. My husband and I hold different views on freedom of speech, and what constitutes an offence. He doesn’t agree with restriction of speech just because another person, ethnic group or religious group is or may be offended.

Our views are undoubtedly shaped by our conflicting cultural and religious experiences, in different parts of the world. Can freedom of speech and harmony co-exist? In many countries, the two are often in conflict. When they clash, which one is more precious?

Memoirs of a Kampung Girl is an elegant prose from Sharon, another Malaysian blogger. In her blog A Leaf in Spring Time, Sharon reminisced about a time in Malaysia of unquestionable acceptance, of sweet innocence and of unchallenged peace.

I remember the calm atmosphere of peace, purity and generosity in Malaysia during the month of Ramadan so many years ago. This Ramadan, my thoughts are stirred by one inappropriate picture. I wish the two bloggers had had better social, cultural and religious awareness in a multi-racial society, which can be easily torn apart by hatred. On the other hand, I hope that people who are upset or offended are forgiving and generous, particularly in the holy month.

Should freedom of speech be a reality in every corner of the world without consequences? What if freedom of speech only exists in an utopian world?

You can find more Blog Exercises on . This is a year-long challenge to help you flex your blogging muscles.

Update: 25 July: According to New Straits Times, both sex bloggers have just been granted bail. The Malaysia High Court today allowed sex bloggers Alvin Tan and Vivian Lee to be released on RM30,000 bail each in two sureties.

Judge Datuk Mohd Azman ordered the two to surrender their passports to the court and report to the nearest police station once a month.

They are also not allowed to upload any provocative comments, articles or photos on the Internet. They are prohibited from using network communication devices to repeat similar offences.

My Related Posts:

When did you last go home?
What is ‘censoriousness’ according to Rowan Atkinson?
Am I British enough?
Share your fear
Do sex, age and race matter?
Why are we all called Jade?
A poignant visit to a Singapore columbarium
Postcard from Singapore: East vs West
Postcard from Singapore: Satay

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28 thoughts on “Pondering Freedom of Speech during Ramadan

  1. Pingback: What is ‘censoriousness’ according to Rowan Atkinson? | Janet's Notebook

  2. Maxim Sense

    Another thought-provoking post, Janet.

    The problem with “freedom of speech” is the “freedom” itself. No one has a universal definition of this, and even if there is one, it will not be universally accepted I’m sure. This is due to the socio-cultural sensitivities or implications that we cannot totally detach from every meaning and connotation of words, implied or otherwise.

    Added to this is the way one culture or society would take the action, intention or purpose more than the meaning of a word or words, which I think, was what exactly happened in this particular case. There is always a good joke and a bad joke as well as differences in humour. What may be funny to you, for example, may not be funny to me, as in your case, sometimes finding it hard to understand a British joke, or wowing in disbelief at how they can poke fun or joke even about the British monarchy. Something that you cannot do in Saudi, otherwise you go to jail. There is even a joke among non-Arabs or non-Saudi residents like “make joke with God, not with the King”.

    I pity those two sex-bloggers who thought all the while they had unearthed the best and funniest joke that they can make without thinking what they had done was no longer funny but rather a great insult to a revered religion (Islam). They realized the severity of what they had done afterwards, hence, those unreservedly and open apologies they made. But even then “the damage was already done” as you’ve said. And even if we claim that WE Muslims are supposed to be more compassionate and forgiving in the light of the Ramadhan fast, it was much different to be simply hurt or offended than insulted. This was aggravated by the fact that since those two sex bloggers had been living in Malaysia they were supposed to know this, yet they did it just the same. That made it a little more “revolting” I should say.

    I repeat, I really pity the two. In fact, I really personally feel that they should be given the chance to be forgiven after knowing that those apologies they offered were sincere and heartfelt with a promise not to do the same thing again. But, you know my friend, not too many Muslims will agree with me, even if I say that it is more blessed to be compassionate, not only during Ramadhan (incidentally, when this kind of joke hurt the most) but any time any where.

    Well, WORDS.. they are better written and spoken decently than enjoyed by the tremendous meanings and implications they are able to make.

    Reply
    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Thank you for your valuable comment from an educated Muslim’s point of view.

      I agree with you that the two bloggers insulted Islam with their action. However, I also wondered, what really propelled them to do so — they’re smart, sassy, educated young people, who’ve been living in Malaysia and should have had common sense. Their insensitivity really baffles me.

      Why did they make such a bad judgement? Was it because fame seeking? Promoting another sex video? Naivety? Ignorance about the power of social media?

      A lot of people are offended by the behaviour of the bloggers, who are now being condemned, looked down on, and you pity them. I do pity them for their ignorance. Personally I don’t think their behaviour was out of malice. In their moment of stupidity, they might have just thought it was ‘funny’ to make fun of their neighbours. Because of the social media, this matter became out of control. Then, you see fear on their face when they apologised.

      I’m more interested in understanding their intention than focusing on the insult itself. If we could understand their intention, perhaps we could use that as an example to educate other people. The bloggers have received a lot of criticism from people from different religions and cultural backgrounds. A lot of people share the same view that we must respect other people’s beliefs and ways of life. This unfortunate case has a positive outcome — it’s strengthened people’s yearning for peace, whoever and wherever we are and whatever countries we are from, and whether we are religious or not.

      Reply
      1. Janet Williams Post author

        Indeed! Freshly Pressed by us! Thousands of brilliant posts are never found, never Freshly Pressed. Freshly Pressed is just a game – I don’t pay attention to it now. You have great audience here, and if we can just change one person’s view, we’re doing a great job. Have a lovely weekend!

  3. Easter Ellen

    Hi Janet,
    I had a little bit of time and after your touching comments, took time to read this article. My goodness how eye-opening it is. Balance within freedom is so very important. Our life is so on the extreme opposite of what you grew up with, but is so out of control. I believe that it is so important to protect our children, value all religions and their practices and show respect to other human beings, which you so clearly articulate with both experience and feeling.
    Thank you so much for sharing.
    Easter

    Reply
    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Dear Easter,

      Thank you so much for your visit and I’m very touched by your openness in your posts.

      It’s so important to protect our children and to teach them respect. Children often copy the behaviours of adults, so actually I’m more worried about adults and their ignorance. A few years ago in England, a teenage student of mine cheerfully sang me this ‘nursery song’: “Chinese, Japanese, what are these (tapping her knees), dirty knees.” I was speechless. I asked her gently where she learnt this nursery song from, and she answered, “My dad.”

      Reply
      1. Easter Ellen

        Oh my goodness, I have known that nasty children’s rhyme since I was very young. There were many other derogatory nursery rhymes. It was common, but thankfully as society has become more of an equal-to-all society, these horrible relics of our embarrassing past are disappearing.

      2. Janet Williams Post author

        I was shocked by the nursery rhyme. The girl was lovely and perhaps I was the only Chinese person in education that she ever got to know. It gave me a chance to speak to her in a gentle way. There’re many young people, who are not exposed to foreign culture, or whose parents are ignorant, and these kids are precious and I’m lucky to have met them.

      3. Easter Ellen

        Canada has become a very diverse country, so I am happy to say that I believe our generation’s children are “colour-blind” when it comes to people, for the most part.
        I am so happy that you can be such a positive and warm influence on these children and you are right… they are so precious.

        Bless you lots,

        Easter

      4. Janet Williams Post author

        This would be the perfect world to be colour blind, but I think prejudice and differences will always be there, from within the children themselves, or from their parents or the media. People still need to be actively taught about equality and not to be racist. I don’t think growing up in a multi-cultural society will naturally make our children more tolerant. A lot of people still live in an isolated community in a multi-racial society, and the barrier is huge. I’ve read a book about this topic and may read it again and share it with you next time.

  4. ShimonZ

    All of the freedoms we enjoy are limited by good sense, good taste, and consideration for our neighbors and friends. We have the freedom to listen to the music of our choice. But if we want to listen in the middle of the night, and we want it to be as loud as it can get, we have to listen by way of ear phones, so as not to disturb our sleeping neighbors. Most of us consider love and peace to be among the values most appreciated, and we are careful not to step on the toes of others. It’s always a shame to hear of those who are aware only of their rights, and much less aware of their obligations towards others. Nice post, Janet.

    Reply
    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Dear Shimon,

      I always learn so much from your wisdom. Your messages of peace and love emanating from your posts from Jerusalem are often very moving.

      True — people should wear their earphones when they listen to loud music. But have you been on a train in Britain? Loud music from people’s earphones or headphones are unbearable. A lot of people just don’t care about other people’s feelings. Train journeys are not always pleasant these days, and noise pollution is a problem. If people can’t even exercise discipline on how loud the music they play, how much more can we expect them to behave sensibly, in other bigger issues in life?

      Thank you for pointing out the connection between rights and obligations. It’s worth serious thoughts.

      Reply
  5. Hazel Bateman

    A thought-provoking post and comments! Last weekend, at the club site where we keep our caravan, I took one of my friends to church on Sunday. Before we left, she asked me to say just that we were going into Ringwood for shopping. She did not want one of her group of friends to know that she was going to church. She told me that this man constantly makes fun of her religion and Christian life, to the point where she feels almost bullied by him. He does it all in a jokey way, but this has been going on for over a year and it is really getting her down. This man is a close friend of her husband, but he has not realised how upset she is. I enlisted the help of another of their male friends and have sent this offensive guy an email, asking him to stop ‘teasing’ my friend in this way. Christians are still persecuted in this country – it’s just a bit more subtle than in other countries!!

    Reply
    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Hi Hazel,

      Thank you for sharing this true story. The man may not even know how upsetting his constant remarks to your friend was. It’s so kind of you to get this matter sorted, in your rather fiery and convoluted way.

      Christianity has been subjected to a lot of teasing in this country, in the media, even in people’s casual conversations and we don’t really need to go far to hear them. Also, it’s the religion that people think they know everything about, and it’s the religion that people dare to ‘touch’ and make fun of. They dare not touch other religions.

      A lot of people think these jokes are harmless and they enjoy their quips and sarcastic remarks, as in the west, being witty and having ‘GSOH’ are popular qualities, in Lonely Heart advert and they’re often important qualities to get a a job interview. If someone takes offence, feels upset or humiliated, and people making those remarks may think that the recipients of the remarks are brainwashed, narrow-minded or really having a problem. Some people are very dominant in their views and I could understand why your friend feels ‘bullied’.

      On another minor note, what about respecting other people’s hobbies or geekiness? You know I make origami and those ‘paper stuff’. Most of the time, people are amazed and they want to find out more, or they just sit quietly and watch, and conversation and sharing of joy will flow from there. But, there’re always one or two people who would be so determined to want to put you down. They would tell you blatantly that it’s a waste of time and ‘what’s the point? It’s so boring!’ Respect is not easy and it has to be learnt — something I’m learning each day, in both real and virtual worlds.

      Reply
  6. friendlytm

    Hi Janet. I share your views. Thank you for your openness and good discussion.
    I just published my third e – book, thanks to you!
    多多指教!It is about my trip to Cambodia. You may be interested….70 pages!

    Reply
    1. Janet Williams Post author

      I’m so happy for you to get these ebooks done! You’re very determined and your efforts really paid off.

      I tried creating my only little ebook and by accident, everything through WordPress clicked together. I’m pleased that my notes helped you. And remember, you’re the one who did all the hard work! Congratulations again!

      Reply
      1. Janet Williams Post author

        Thanks for your compliment, yet I’m not sure I can take the credit for it. It’s your writing that attracts readers. Congratulations! Wonderful news!

  7. Lorelle VanFossen

    Wow! I’m nearly speechless. What a powerful post – but I’m coming to expect greatness from you, my friend.
    Your point is beautiful and beautifully put.
    I’m not sure where this memory popped up from or why, but I remember hanging out with a friend in her Tel Aviv home for hours, solving the world’s problems as usual, and I chewed off a tiny bit of hangnail skin around a fingernail. Relaxed and stuff after a beautiful meal, I didn’t think anything about turning to the side and quietly spitting the microscopic piece of skin towards the floor.
    My friend jumped up with a scream and raced to grab a towel and hunt for the debris in a panic.
    I don’t know what shocked me more, her response or the tale she told me when she finally tracked it down, scrubbing and beaching the stone floor in the process – and cleanliness was not a priority for her, trust me.
    It seems that somewhere in her misbegotten and ill-informed youth, someone told her that if you stepped on a hangnail or cuticle on the floor it would cause a miscarriage.
    I am usually totally tolerant of other cultures and religious beliefs, even the dumb ones, but this made no sense at all. I finally looked at her and said, “Both of us are too old and way past our prime in baby-making. Do you think it applies to us?”
    She sat down across from me, towel still in her hand, and looked blank, then laughed – and laughed and laughed.
    “I’m such a stupid woman!”
    “No, you’re not. You’re the smartest person I know!”
    “I cannot believe I spent my whole life worrying about a piece of skin! What a waste of energy.”
    In that instant, she knew the truth at 65 years old. Made me wonder what other myths we perpetuate because we don’t ask why enough – or, as in your example, the ability to ask has been cultured out of us.
    I live for the asking, which would get me arrested and some other terrible things if I lived elsewhere. Thanks for reminding me.

    Reply
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