Vigilante group Semut sets itself as watchdog for ‘sensible and ethical’ use of social media
Intentions may be lauded, but group must prove it does not practise double standards
MANY Malaysians are not quite sure how to react to the news that a group of volunteers has set itself up as the watchdog of society, on social media at least.
The ‘Sensible and Ethical Malaysian United Troopers’ (Semut, which is also Malay for ‘ant’) group will monitor social media for sensitive remarks or comments “that can be harmful to society.”
The group purportedly has about 200 volunteers who will feed it information, including screenshots of any such postings. If warranted, Semut will then lodge a police report so that the authorities can initiate investigation, the group’s coordinator Huan Cheng Guan told national news agency Bernama, in a report published in local daily theSun.
Huan said the ‘volunteers’ are “mostly social media users who are against other users using Facebook to post insensitive, insulting remarks and condemning others.”
Not long after, Huan lodged a police report against a Facebook account holder for allegedly posting a comment insulting Islam and the Prophet Muhammad, saying that the comment may create disharmony within Malaysia’s multi-religious society.
He also urged industry regulator the Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) to act swiftly, according to a report in the New Straits Times.
I have to add myself to that group of Malaysians who are not quite sure how to react. While I believe that the Internet, and social media by extension, is a great tool of democratisation, giving a voice to many who previously could not be heard, I have always believed that with ‘great empowerment comes great responsibility.’
Freedom of expression, which is in very short supply in this part of the world, is a basic human right. Unlike other basic human rights however, it requires responsible behaviour to avoid being abused.
Because the Internet, and social media even more so, operates more on the principle of ‘birds of a feather flock together’ rather than ‘like repels like,’ it has the habit of polarising views (and their holders) into distinct, walled-off camps.
Yet even I myself have been uncomfortable with some of the things posted by my fellow social media users – and these are people I agree with. We tend to jump off the gun and post comments that are ill-considered and at times, downright illegal by the letter of the law.
Too many of us think that since it’s the Internet, it’s okay, The laws of the land, or of simple human decency, don’t apply here.
So I would really like to laud Semut’s efforts and intentions. But I can’t.
First, it doesn’t help that Huan, who seems to be spearheading this effort, is a politician linked to the ruling coalition, the Barisan Nasional, and held office in two of its component parties at one time or the other. He however argued that he has contested against both Barisan and Pakatan Rakyat (the Federal Opposition) candidates.
Second, I am always wary of getting citizens to police their fellows. It creates a climate of fear and paranoia in society that can be more harmful than the adverse elements it purports to defend against.
Third is the fact that this movement was born against a backdrop of a government that is still struggling to rein in freedom of expression, and whose record on the matter is highly questionable, with Malaysia’s ranking in a number of indices slipping year after year.
Fourth, and perhaps most importantly, is the scourge of double standards. It is becoming more apparent every day to any but the most myopic Malaysian that two sets of laws operate in this land of ours – that there are ‘protected people’ who can get away with just about anything.
Nothing brought this into starker relief than the heavy-handed manner in which the brunt of the law was brought to bear against the ‘sex bloggers’ who allegedly insulted Islam, while Barisan-linked politicians got away scot-free for insulting Hinduism and Christianity.
Alvin Tan Jye Yee, 25, and Vivian Lee May Ling, 24, dubbed ‘Alvivi’ by Malaysian media, gained notoriety last year for posting sex videos and photographs of themselves on their blog. Perhaps missing the glare of the spotlight this year, they decided to foolishly post a picture of themselves eating a pork dish at the start of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month, wishing their readers a happy breaking of their daily fast.
The authorities sprang into action in record time – within one week, they were hauled up and charged under the Sedition Act, the Film Censorship Act and the Penal Code.
They were denied bail at first, but when legal experts questioned the judge’s ruling – noting that even accused rapists and murderers got it – were finally granted bail, at a whopping RM30,000 (US$9,320) each, and after spending more than week in prison.
They face a maximum jail sentence of 15 years each, with fines, if convicted of the three charges.
I have not much sympathy for their foolish act, but compare this with the action, or lack of, taken against two Barisan-linked politicians.
Ibrahim Ali, founder and head of right-wing Malay-Muslim group Perkasa threatened to burn bibles. No further action.
In fact, Ibrahim’s seditious call found support from no less than a Cabinet member -- Urban Wellbeing, Housing and Local Government Minister Abdul Rahman Dahlan.
Meanwhile Perkasa vice-president Zulkifli Nordin, who contested under the Barisan ticket in Malaysia’s general election in May, had ‘allegedly’ insulted Hindus and used a derogatory term to describe the Indian-Malaysian community. He belittled the faith, as proven by videos posted on YouTube.
Reports were lodged, and after months of seeming inaction, the police said they were ordered to stop their probe by the Attorney-General's Chambers, which cited a “lack of evidence,” according to a report published in The Malaysian Insider.
Apparently, a video showing the man making a vitriolic, hate-filled speech – where you can see the total disdain in which he holds people of a different faith – does not constitute evidence, yet a Facebook photo, in the case of the Alvivi couple, does. Go figure.
So to my Semut friends, here’s your dilemma. The Malaysian Constitution affords protection to all faiths. Your first step was to lodge a police report over an alleged insult against Islam. Don’t misunderstand me – if true, this should be acted upon.
But the authorities have already shown they will not tolerate this. Your first test would be to show that you don’t have the same set of double standards.
There are quite a number of insults and seditious statements being made against Malaysians of all faiths and creeds. Get your 200 volunteers to display the ‘neither fear no favour’ principle we expect from the authorities, and you will find that Malaysians will then know how to react. We will support you.
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