Government knows best

IN April 2009, Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak famously pronounced that "the era where the government imposed excessive controls and adopted the attitude of 'government knows best' is over". He also said that achieving a peaceful and prosperous country is when the government and the people worked together to meet this objective.

Nine years later, as the country is on the cusp of the 14th general election, a new bill has been tabled in Parliament that seems to be the very antithesis of that statement.

The Anti-Fake News Bill 2018 proposes a fine of up to RM500,000 or a 10-year jail term for offenders, who would be considered anyone – Malaysian or not, inside the country or out – who knowingly creates, offers, publishes, prints, distributes, circulates or disseminates any fake news or publication containing fake news.

The term "knowingly" is what many lawyers and rights groups are questioning to be key in the interpretation of this section – "knowingly" according to whom? Second, who is to decide what constitutes "fake news"? Will there be a Truth Commission set up to verify any and every possible bit of information? Would opinions by a columnist that may seem contrary to the position taken by the authorities also be deemed as untruths and therefore liable under the new law?

These developments do not only stand the risk of infringing upon citizens' freedom of speech and expression as guaranteed by Article 10 of the Federal Constitution, but it has much deeper and long-term implications on society.

While true that fake news is unwelcome, and it can be difficult to sift through the news to determine what is verified or not, it is not the duty of the state to determine when a piece of information is fake or not. This assumes that the individual no longer has the conscience nor responsibility to judge for oneself.

A government that decides on its citizens' behalf what is true and false is a government that interferes unduly with their personal choice, namely a nanny state, reminiscent of George Orwell's Big Brother state in his book 1984. This leads to the consequent question of what is the role of government, essentially?

An IDEAS paper published in 2010 – but still very relevant today – answers this, stating that the only proper purpose of government is the protection of individual rights. This means the government has no business interfering in people's lives and telling them what to do (by encouraging or discouraging certain activities) or what to think and believe (through censorship and stifling of opinions) – because, simply, "these actions constitute a violation of individual rights, which is in direct contrast to the government's proper purpose: the protection of rights".

The problem with governments that excessively intervene in the private and personal lives of individuals is that citizens eventually find it impossible to pursue their values and further their lives in the ways they so desire. The opportunities that we humans want to freely, happily and successfully pursue – whether in the form of writing, creative arts, politics, academia or otherwise – would become that much more difficult when faced with the large, looming shadow of the state telling us what is and is not permissible.

Malaysians have become used to living under a big government. This piece of legislation is yet another in a series of existing laws that already hamper our ability to speak and write critically, including the Printing Presses and Publications Act and the Sedition Act whose clauses are particularly open for wide interpretation.

Our national schools have introduced "higher order thinking skills" into the curriculum, supposedly to increase thinking skills among children to nurture and equip Malaysia's next generation of innovators to think critically. This seems rather farcical, where on the one hand we are hoping to develop critical thinking skills in primary schoolchildren, but when they grow up, we aim to stifle critical thinking among adults.

History has shown us the disastrous effects of a government that first possesses, and then later uses and abuses its excessive power over its citizens. I believe this is what Najib Abdul Razak aimed to avoid when he said that the era of government knows best is over. Unfortunately, things seem to have changed somewhat over the last decade. Government now knows best.

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