In liberalism survey, Malaysians say yes to both free speech and Sedition Act

By Ida Lim
Wan Saiful said that the results of the IDEAS-commissioned survey showed Malaysians' understanding towards the ideology is limited. — Picture by Choo Choy May

PETALING JAYA, March 24 ― Despite voicing support for free speech in Malaysia, a majority of Malaysians polled in a nationwide survey also felt that the government should keep the controversial Sedition Act.

Over three-quarters or 77 per cent of the 1,207 respondents believed Malaysia is ready for freedom of speech and a free media, while just 20 per cent disagreed, think-tank Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) revealed today.

But when thrown a “trick question” proposing the government retain the Sedition Act ― which critics say suppresses free speech ― and similar laws to guarantee peace and stability in Malaysia, more than half or 60 per cent said yes, leaving just 34 per cent who disagreed.

"Now the Sedition Act is obviously an illiberal law and it has been hotly debated, so we ask them whether you want the Sedition Act to be retained or removed, so usually people who are consistently liberal would say that it should be removed.

“But what we found, that despite saying yes, we support political liberalism, we found 60 per cent say they want Sedition Act to be retained," IDEAS chief executive Wan Saiful Wan Jan said during a news conference here to announce the survey results.

The community found to be most in favour of keeping laws like the Sedition Act was the east Malaysian Bumiputera regardless of their religious background, though Muslims outnumbered non-Muslims at 82 per cent and 74 per cent respectively.

This was followed by 76 per cent of Malays, and with ethnic Indians split between 51 per cent who agreed and 45 per cent who disagreed. Only the ethnic Chinese surveyed bucked the trend, with 61 per cent rejecting and just over a quarter or 27 per cent in favour of keeping laws like the Sedition Act.

The survey also posed two other ideas on political liberalism and found an overwhelming 91 per cent agreeing that the rule of law must be upheld and that all citizens should be equal before the law regardless of their social standing, while 84 per cent agreed that democracy ― including free and fair elections ― would be the best form of governance for Malaysia.

Yes to social justice and government control

Despite supporting liberal ideas of social justice, nearly three-quarters of the 1,207 respondents also deviated from social liberalism by backing government control on all Malaysians for the sake of preserving the nation’s culture and values.

They were asked another “trick” question whether or not they agreed that “the government should control all citizens to protect Malaysia’s cultures, values and tradition” during the survey via phone calls, although the phrase “Malaysian culture” was not further defined.

For this question, those who strongly agreed and somewhat agreed stood at 40 per cent and 34 per cent respectively, while those who somewhat disagreed and strongly disagreed amounted to 14 per cent and 10 per cent, with a further 2 per cent saying they were unsure.

IDEAS highlighted that those backing government control was highest among Muslim Bumiputera respondents from Sabah and Sarawak (94 per cent), followed by Indians and Malays both at 87 per cent, non-Muslim Bumiputera (81 per cent). For the Chinese respondents, 51 per cent objected while 42 per cent supported.

The number of civil servants and government-linked companies who supported governmental control was, expectedly high at 86 per cent. But unexpectedly, this view was also high among those in the private sector (71 per cent), self-employed (73 per cent) and others such as homemakers, retirees, students or the jobless (73 per cent).

This is despite respondents taking a liberal stance for three other questions under the same social liberalism category, where respondents showed overwhelming overall support at 84 per cent for the view that their individual freedom should only be limited by their responsibility to not physically harm others and to not infringe on others' freedom.

The remaining two questions both saw 65 per cent respondents expressing favour, namely the desire to freely choose how to live their life where religion, dressing and sexuality are considered private matters; and the acceptance and respect of how minorities like atheists and the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender live their lives.

Shaky commitment to liberalism

Wan Saiful said the two “trick” questions were used to check if respondents truly understood and support liberalism, adding that the results of the IDEAS-commissioned survey showed Malaysians' understanding towards the ideology is limited.

"So what we found is even though they support the majority of elements of political and social liberalism, when you go into the details and the more challenging parts, that commitment to political and social liberalism starts to shake a little bit.

"My conclusion would be the support for political liberalism and social liberalism is not because they understand what it is, not because of commitment to a particular ideology or philosophy, it's just a sentiment thing. It's not because of a belief in an ideological system, it's more of a hunch," he told reporters later.

He believed however that Malaysia is moving towards liberalism, adding: "I hope we become more holistic in our embrace of liberal ideas."

In the survey last December conducted by pollster Merdeka Center, only 51 per cent said they have heard about liberalism, while 76 per cent admitted to either not understanding at all or not having much understanding of the ideology.

The ethnic breakdown of the 1,207 polled are 51 per cent Malays, 30 per cent Chinese, seven per cent Indians, while the Bumiputera community from Sabah and Sarawak comprised of 6.5 per cent Muslim and 5.8 per cent non-Muslim.

Respondents from Sabah and Sarawak both account for 7.8 per cent each and did not only include those who are natives, while the remaining 84.4 per cent are from Peninsular Malaysia.