What Does Freedom Of Speech Mean?

Fahri Azzat‘s thoughts on the Ask Lord Bobo fellatio issue.

Author’s warning: If you are easily offended or unable to countenance another opinion other than your own, I beg you to go no further. Please consider instead doing something that you enjoy, or that makes another happy.

LoyarBurok, the organisation, has recently come under a great deal of aggressive criticism in the social media for an article published in The Malaysian Insider column known as ‘Ask Lord Bobo’. The article in question was titled ‘What to get your man for Christmas’.

From my observations on Twitter and Facebook, prominent in leading the attack are a lady named Lainie Yeoh (‘Lainie’) and someone I consider a friend named Pang Khee Teik (‘Pang’). I don’t know who Lainie Yeoh is but I understand she did some good work for UndiMsia, a project run by a friend of mine named Edmund Bon. I don’t know the whole list of their cohorts.

Lainie and a few others were offended and disappointed by the article and LoyarBurok. According to Pang, some felt there was a ‘hurtful nature’ about the article. I don’t know who felt that. He didn’t say. For myself, an adult is a rational person with a mind of their own, whom we can agree to disagree with, and should have some amount of resilience about them. So I am not going to dispute them or try to convince them or anyone otherwise. That’s their interpretation. That’s their opinion.

If they cannot agree to disagree, then I prefer to leave the field. I have long shattered the illusion that I will change the world or anybody. I accept the fact that the best I can do is follow my bliss and hope that it inspires others to do good for society. As a flawed human being struggling to deal with and make sense of this age we’re in, I accept my complete lack of authority on how one should live or behave. I can make suggestions, sure. But what you do with them is up to you. I recognize that so long as your words, thoughts, life, etc. stay within the parameters of the law, I have to respect that — no matter how much I disagree or am offended by it. I can say my piece, of course, but I cannot force them to retract or change their mind. That is the nature of freedom of expression as I know it to be. That is the nature of a democracy as I know it to be. Anything that falls short of that, is not freedom of expression or democracy. Anything that falls short of that is tyranny.

I would not trouble myself to write this if Lainie Yeoh and Pang wrote their view and posted them on LoyarBurok (or some other place) and left it at that. I have no issue if they called the article (or me) sexist, stupid, offensive, or any other derogatory term they can come up with. And I’m sure they can do this. Both of them are intelligent people. Pang recently returned triumphantly from a Chevening Scholarship Masters from School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) where he won the first prize for his dissertation on gender studies and sexuality. I don’t know much about Lainie but I’m sure she’s just as bright as Pang even without the formalities of a Masters Degree. A piece of official looking paper is no confirmation of one’s intelligence or abilities.

So why am I writing this? I write this to express my disappointment with both of them (and their cohorts) in their participation of this orchestrated attempt to shame and create ill will against LoyarBurok and the good work we and many others have done for the organisation. I write to articulate my disappointment in how they have dealt with their unhappiness. ‘If you’re not happy, speak your mind. We’ll post it up.’ That’s always been the LoyarBurok philosophy. Whether for or against us.

My disappointment lies in how they hold their views sacred and absolute, and treat those with a different view with contempt. My disappointment lies in how they have gone about their discontent. My disappointment lies in the campaign of shame and creation of ill will amongst our friends against LoyarBurok. They may not be the directing mind, but their participation and influence in that campaign to me is obvious.

The first, holding their views sacred and absolute.

Let’s start with Pang. To his credit, (at time of writing) he is the only one who has bothered to put up a written response. So let’s take a look at it. He begins his response with, “Dear Lord Bobo, indeed you have blasphemed, not against royalty, but all women.” Here is a gay guy, purporting to speak for not some women, but all women. That is rich. Would a heterosexual guy have such a privilege? From my experience, he doesn’t, and God help him if he thinks he does.

Let me hasten to add I have nothing against the Lesbian, Bisexual, Gay and Transgender community. On the contrary, I wholeheartedly support diversity in sexuality and not just in word but in deed. Ask around if you don’t believe me. This is not about his sexuality. This is about him claiming a right to speak for all women when he has as much right as I have — none. I would have thought his feminist friends would caution him about this claim. But then I don’t pretend to know how one goes about pick and choosing what to be offended about.

Now, let’s consider the factual aspect. Has the article really ‘blasphemed’ against all women? Actually, no. I know a number of women who found it hilarious and thought nothing of it. Some even remarked (from experience I hope) how true it was that men preferred blowjobs. And I heard that some may find it sexist, offensive, in bad taste, etc. That’s the way it is with most things. There’s a saying, ‘One man’s meat is another man’s poison.’ But the views of these women are ignored, dismissed or denigrated (as I shall illustrate in a moment).

And let’s be honest, even Pang has the decency to admit he loves receiving and giving blowjobs. A blowjob is not some act of sexual oppression. It is, in the right context with the right person, an act of love. I love receiving them too and returning the favour with cunnilingus, or Kinokuniya book vouchers if she isn’t keen on it. From my anecdotal evidence, from both men and women, many men enjoy a blowjob — or several. You may be offended by this fact. But it doesn’t change anything. If you disagree with this, do your empirical survey and let’s look at it. Why Pang chooses only the side of those women offended as opposed to those women who found it funny and inoffensive, I don’t know. What we can be certain of is that he only chose to represent one side of the narrative. That is not fair.

So from the first line, we can appreciate that Pang has no authority to speak for women, is wrong on the facts and partial in his view.

In his second sentence, this is what he said: ‘Here, a woman asking for advice for Christmas gifts for her lawyer boyfriend is told by you that she should suck her boyfriend.’ With respect, this is not an accurate summary of the article. It is a summary of his interpretation. Let me reproduce some of the words used in the article: ‘We would suggest you think out of the box…’, ‘For example, you could do something…’, and this is the clincher ‘But hey, if you’re not into fellatio for whatever reason… there are other options.’ If you trouble to read the piece, she is given a whole lot of stupid suggestions on what the girlfriend should get her boyfriend aside from a blowjob, which was a default gift. I suppose you could interpret it as Pang did. But in fairness, you could interpret it otherwise too.

But you read what you want these days. And Pang continues to do that. One last comment about it and then I’m done with his piece. Promise. The critical assumption of his piece is this: Though in your article your advice was limited to the girl giving fellatio to her boyfriend, and that she should therefore be game and consenting to the idea, the fact that you assumed she should and that he is entitled to it suggests you accept unquestioningly that her consent is contracted automatically by the fact of their relationship, that fellatio is indeed a privilege of men.

That sort of passage may win Pang a first prize in essay writing in SOAS, but a law student pointed out the obvious error of logic in that statement. She pointed out that the main premise of Pang’s article is that ‘the suggestion of giving fellatio as a gift IMPLIES that the man receiving feels he is entitled to it. That is a false assumption. The only assumption from the article is that the recipient WANTS it, not that he feels entitled to it.’ I could not put it better.

That’s what is disappointing about Pang this time out. He is usually much, much better than that. But then we all have our off days, and I’m going to treat that piece as one of them. I am not going to judge him and his entire life by that poorly written, poorly reasoned and poorly assumed article. I am not going to agitate my friends to condemn what he wrote. I’m disappointed, of course, but I’ll live.

What about the utter contempt bit? That part is more Lainie, who has been active on Twitter stoking the outrage beyond the ordinary. Maybe there are others. But she features most prominently in my experience of this episode. Let me give you a flavour. A lady friend of mine tweeted how attempting to censor Lord Bobo was the biggest blasphemy. She doesn’t tag anybody. Bam! Lainie weighs in without any courtesy with ‘so please do rethink what you are saying now.’ as if my friend needed advice on how to think. She doesn’t. She’s a kick-ass lawyer. She responds with, ‘I stand by everything I say and I refrain from asking you to rethink what you are saying because you are entitled to them.’ Fair enough, right? But Lainie’s retort is, ‘ahaha! That’s really ridiculous leap of logic and misunderstand of FOE. Okay la, no wonder such a big LB fan.’ For someone purporting to ‘defend’ women against sexism, I thought her reply disrespectful and contemptuous.

Lainie’s reply demonstrates how much respect she has for other opinions, woman or man, when they differ with hers — none. It’s not about sexism anymore, it’s about being right, about being vindicated, and so triumphant. Tweets like Lainie’s are not looking for engagement; they are units of attrition. Pang has engaged on social media and is civil.

Now, how they dealt with their discontent.

As I said earlier: If you are unhappy, disappointed or offended by what is put up on LoyarBurok, Ask Lord Bobo, etc. send it to us and we will publish it. If you are not happy with me, call, write, or come and talk to me. Even if it is against LoyarBurok. Even if it is against me. Especially when we are all friends or are connected to each other in our mutual causes. I know this is unusual in Malaysia, but we have for some time been trying our darndest to create LoyarBurok a place for discourse. Real discourse, where you get as many sides to the debate as possible.

What I resent however is when discussions are held to orchestrate a shame campaign against LoyarBurok. I resent it when our friends are agitated to express their issues or opinions widely on social media without engaging us civilly first. I resent it when the efforts are made to condemn, emotionally blackmail LoyarBurok into an apology and a retraction of the article. I resent that our friends who think otherwise and found the piece funny are denigrated and disrespected. I resent that this campaign has so stressed Edmund with the implicit threat that no further cooperation would be given for our UndiMsia community initiatives, which he leads.

Quite honestly, I cannot comprehend the aggression and vituperation against LoyarBurok about the article. There are now calls on Twitter to boycott LoyarBurok. That is how the discourse has escalated for Lainie (not Pang) and her cohorts — from the article being sexist, it is now LoyarBurok and everything about it being sexist, and needing condemnation.

This is the dishonesty of the criticism that I take issue with. A gentlemen tweeted it best, ‘In the end if it’s sexist, call a spade a spade and not take it as a free pass to bash everything Loyarburok stands for.’ That’s my point. Say your piece. We’ll put it up. That should be the end of the matter, not this attrition on social media that has been going on for weeks. But if we don’t agree, move on.

Where is the proportionality in Lainie, Pang and their cohorts reaction? The article was published on 20 December 2013. It is more than a month since it was published. In fact, if you go to the original TMI article, you will see their responses aren’t there. There is nothing about their discontent on the website. I would have thought that the best place to post up their discontent. But they are going to town on this with Facebook and Twitter tagging as many as they can on it.

What is that really about? What’s with the urgency now? So why do they keep trying to shame and browbeat everybody into agreeing with them now? Someone remarked to me that there are a whole host of issues that are not only offensive but outright dangerous such as child marriages, rape in marriage, human trafficking, etc. to contend with. Why aren’t their efforts focused on these urgent issues, instead of wasting their time with the article? That’s a fair question. But I am not waiting for an answer. It’s obvious where their priorities lie. I know full well how it’s far easier to attack your friends sitting next to you than it is to take on the big, mighty government. That’s how this looks like to me, because we have been there before. Sure they will spin a pretty good intellectual explanation how nefarious the article is, how it reinforces sexist stereotypes, etc. as if we are all too stupid if we disagreed with them and could not possibly know any better than them.

So let’s get real here: Did anybody behave in a sexually oppressive and violent manner to women because of that piece on The Malaysian Insider that was up for less than 24 hours? How much sexism did was reinforced in Malaysia with that piece in less than 24 hours? Have they done an empirical study of how many people were seriously harmed by that piece — because conjecture is easy? Did they do a survey of how many women really found it funny as compared to those that didn’t and compared to those who don’t care? How many in Malaysia took the article as seriously as Pang, Lainie and all their well intentioned cohorts? How many took the article as a serious piece of advice that had to be carried out? How has Malaysia changed because of that article? How has Malaysia changed through the work of LoyarBurok?

And that’s what is lacking with their complaint: a complete lack of perspective. And by that, a complete lack of respect for other people’s views. And a complete negation of the other view. I don’t know why they find it so hard to accept that others may find it funny and there’s nothing wrong with them in doing so. Sure we may not be as smart, sensitive and noble as Pang, Lainie and their cohorts are, but our views are still ours to hold.

Finally, my disgust at their shaming orchestration and creation of ill will. I have alluded to what they did. It saddens immensely me to recount it in detail so I won’t. Although Pang does not demand censorship or an apology in his article, he has mentioned on Twitter and in his private message to us how necessary it is to get the dialogue going. ‘Apologise and then let’s dialogue.’ That’s his invitation. That’s their invitation.

The trouble is that when Pang was in a similar situation he did not do as he suggests. It’s known that he is the co-founder of the Seksualiti Merdeka, a festival to celebrate sexual plurality and to create awareness of these non-mainstream sexual lifestyles. In the The Malaysian Insider report dated 3 November 2011, Seksualiti Merdeka was closed down because the Deputy IGP claimed, ‘Police received many protests from non-governmental organisations including Islamic and non-Islamic organisations who feared that the programme could create disharmony, enmity and disturb public order.’ As if that wasn’t bad enough, the Deputy Prime Minister was reported to have ‘said today the organisers of the “Seksualiti Merdeka” festival should respect Malaysian culture and laws instead of promoting an event which celebrates homosexuality.’

Pang rightly did not apologise to start a dialogue. What did he have to apologise for? For hurting those delicate ultra-conservative sentiments and feelings? For the remote chance that the event would create disharmony, enmity and disturb public order? He rightly took legal action and challenged the ban in a judicial review proceeding. LoyarBurok supported the challenge all the way. In fact, search Seksualiti Merdeka on LoyarBurok and see what comes up. Please, do it. Then maybe you can begin to understand my bewilderment at the aggression levels in this campaign again, particularly from Pang.

But when the shoe is on the other foot, suddenly it’s all different. Now, we have to be mindful of every little delicate and fragile sensibility or ‘feelings’ that we know nothing of. Now we have to be mindful of the ‘hurt’ our words may cause (even when said so plainly in jest and we have no way of scientifically ascertaining this of everybody). Now we do not have to concern ourselves with the ‘hurt’ of non-governmental organisations including Islamic and non-Islamic organisations, but we must with Pang’s friends who claim to ‘be hurt’ (who are intelligent adults).

Perhaps it is not without irony that while all this is going on, Perkasa was reported in the Utusan to ask the authorities for action to be taken against Lord Bobo for disrespecting the monarchy in its January Ask Lord Bobo column. I loathe Perkasa as an organisation. But my experience with this campaign has helped me appreciate two things about that loathsome organisation. Firstly, Perkasa are naked in their demands. They don’t insist on the pretense of dialogue when what they really want is an apology. Secondly, they say their piece loud and clear, in Utusan, of course, and then move on. Not Pang, Lainie and their cohorts though. They snipe (not Pang) at those that who disagree with them on social media. And it has been going on for at least three weeks now. For them it is not enough to say their piece. They have to force it down your throat under the guise of discourse. And you have to ultimately agree with their view or apologise for it.

So what does freedom of speech mean? For me, it means that you can say what you want within the limits of the law even if it is offensive, stupid, not funny, insulting, clever, etc. and it is understood that we all agree to disagree. You don’t have to apologize for what you think or say. If you feel the need to, go ahead. But there is no legal obligation to do so. The only time you can be legitimately forced into it is when the law makes demands of it.

For some, it means you can only say what is not offensive to anyone. And there are those that think it means whatever they say it means whenever it suits them.

The Ask Lord Bobo article was an attempt at humour. It always attempts it. It has been attempting it since it started in Selangor Times more than three years ago. Sometime it works. Sometime it doesn’t. It happens. The Ask Lord Bobo column was never some official communication channel for the Malaysian Centre for Constitutional and Human Rights (MCCHR). Never. It has always had a freewheeling, manic, and crazy kind of style. If someone says it is the mouthpiece of the MCCHR, then I have to clarify here that whoever said that got it completely wrong.

When humour works, you laugh. When it doesn’t work, you don’t laugh. And when humour doesn’t work, it fails spectacularly, in many ways too numerous to mention. Many complaints can be made of it, not least that it is sexist and offensive. It is all too easy to beat the living daylights of a joke that didn’t come off. It it easier still to get nasty on the fellas whose joke didn’t come off.

But ultimately, being offended and feeling ‘hurt’ by it is a choice. It is a personal choice. It is not an inevitability. You can choose to imagine all sorts of hurt by a poor attempt at humour, or you can do what many people with a life do — get on with the business of living and chalk it down to an off day.

Author’s note: I do not refer to Pang to single him out. It’s simply because he was the only one who had the courtesy to engage us, or me anyway, which I appreciate.

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Fahri Azzat practices the dark arts of the law. Although he enjoys writing and reading, he doesn't enjoy writing his own little biographies of himself. Like this one. He wished somebody else would do it for him. He has little taste in writing about himself in third person. He feels weird doing it. But the part he finds most tedious is having to pad up the lack of his accomplishments, or share some interesting facts about his rather uneventful life, as if there were some who found that oh-so-interesting; as if he were some famous person, like Michael Jackson. When he writes these biographies, the thought, 'Wei, Jangan Perasaan- ah!' lights up in his head. So he usually just lists what he got involved with, positions he held and blah, blah. But this time. Right here. Right this very moment. Uhuh. This one. This one right here. He's finally telling it like it is.

Posted on 6 February 2014. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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