Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Religion hates freedom of speech

Who would have thought that enjoying a simple dish comprising pork rib stewed with herbs and copious amounts of spices (a South East Asian delicacy known as Ba Kut Teh) would literally land one in hot soup. 

Just ask the luckless Malaysian, one Ms Vivian Lee May Ling, who was sentenced to six months in prison, for allegedly mocking her Muslim countrymen by posting an online greeting during Ramadan depicting the offending dish. Admittedly, unlike the savory dish, the post might have been in bad taste given that Muslims possess an intense dislike of anything porcine. And I mean anything. However, a six month custodial sentence seems unduly harsh given that she is not a Muslim and should not be expected to adhere to dietary restrictions prescribed under Islamic law. Yet, the prosecution is appealing the sentence for being too lenient. The severity of the punishment is not commensurate with her deed and the intended message is abundantly clear: In Malaysia, Islam brooks neither criticism nor satire.
Closer to home in Singapore, poor Amos Yee has been hauled up yet again for allegedly offending the sensitivities of the religious.  The reader may recall that the teen was arrested and sent to prison last year because peace-loving and born-again Christians were outraged by his online antics. This time round, he had apparently made disparaging comments about Islam on an online platform (facebook?). The offending remarks were not reported in media. But suffice to say, these unrepeatable remarks must have agitated a fair number of people who found it worth their time to lodge police reports under Section 298A of the Singapore Penal Code. Again, the religion of peace manifests its tolerant and graceful teachings in rather odd fashion.

I have said it before, I will say it again, the fact that this statute is actively relied upon and enforced is highly problematic, not least because of the arbitrary manner it is being applied. Who determines what is legitimately offensive and to whom? Furthermore, are we saying that all uncomfortable viewpoints should not be aired, no matter how valid, to avoid injuring the fragile constitutions of some? 

This ill-conceived piece of legislation effectively silences (through self-censorship or, as in the case of Amos Yee, police intervention) discourse about the merits (or lack thereof) of any Government policy or social issue which religious groups may have a stake in, e.g., Science education, history, human rights, homosexuality, etc.  

We should recognize by now that discussion of this sort is essential for the progress of society. Regrettably, monotheistic religions tend to have a comprehensive worldview and their adherents are rarely afraid to exert their considerable political clout to bend Governments to their will. One needs to look no further than the recent UMNO support for the implementation of hudud law in PAS-controlled states to appreciate the political muscle a single religion can wieldWhat better way to wrest religious votes from the Opposition than to present your party as the True Champion of Islam? 

The Chinese have a saying "骑虎难下" - literally translated as "It is hard to dismount when riding a tiger". I sure hope UMNO knows what it is getting itself into when pandering to far right elements.

How long would it be before Malaysia treads the footsteps of India's BJP party and goes for a pork ban? Your guess is as good as mine. However, if secular society is unable and unwilling to stand up for its right to expression and debate, then we all better have our fill of Ba Kut Teh, while we still can