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.
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.)
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.
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?
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