A freedom conversation

(First published in theSun on 28 November 2014, here).

MEETING people for the first time, I am often asked what a think-tank is. This is followed by a question on how it is that a classical liberal think-tank can exist in this country, given its relatively centralised approach to socioeconomic policy-making and perhaps more importantly, the negative perception towards the term “liberalism” in Malaysia.

It is for this reason that our team decided to carry out a little social media campaign on Twitter last month, a “Freedom Conversation” of sorts, during which the public were invited to #AskIDEAS questions related to freedom, state control and the rule of law and we would respond accordingly (in all of 140 letter characters per tweet).

For over an hour, we typed profusely, answering the steady flow of questions that came in from a variety of Malaysian Twitter users. They were generally interested in two broad categories, namely that of liberal conceptual frameworks as well as how these principles are fleshed out in everyday life.

On the conceptual front, people were mainly curious as to how individual freedom would impact upon public morality, and effects this has on the larger community; that is to say, what are the limits to freedom? The argument used here is that when individuals exercise their liberties without adhering to social norms or constraints, things would get out of hand and society would descend into chaos.

But this line of thinking in fact denigrates the ability of the human mind and conscience to reason things out logically. Individuals are able to rationalise for themselves how their actions lead to positive or negative outcomes, and make decisions accordingly.

John Stuart Mill wrote about the “harm principle” in his book On Liberty, articulating that “the only purpose for which power can be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilised community, against his will, is to prevent harm from others”. The actions of individuals should therefore only be limited to prevent harm to other individuals.

In fact, the draft Racial and Religious Hate Crimes Bill, which was proposed to replace the existing Sedition Act (along with the National Harmony Bill), prescribes the same – that a person would be considered guilty of an offence if he or she engages in conduct that is intended to threaten or incite others towards harming someone else physically. As long as there is no intention to harm someone else, there ought not to be any limits on individual freedoms.

The second broad category of conversations centred upon policy in the working environment, such as the need for occupational licensing, and the recent liberalisation of the legal services market this year. On the first issue, occupational licences for doctors and lawyers do assure the public of some level of quality, but on the other hand also means that traditional medicine practitioners may be branded as “illegal” if they are not recognised by the government. The main issue here is that of information asymmetry, and as such more emphasis should be placed on public education and provision of information, the latter of which regulatory bodies can actually do.

On the second issue, liberalisation of legal services means foreign law firms entering the local market and competing with existing legal firms. Although local firms may have been initially resistant to this, the reality is that we live in an increasingly integrated environment, regionally and globally. The Malaysian Bar president accurately stated that the challenge for Malaysian lawyers is to therefore build their own capacities to become more competitive, attracting both clients and talented lawyers to their fold.

Sixty minutes was certainly not enough time to provide a full and accurate description of what a classical liberal think-tank stands for. There were many questions that in fact would have required a full day to comprehensively respond to.

As Malaysia increasingly finds itself caught between social conservatives (primarily ethnic and religious in nature) and the “liberal” bogeymen (who are blamed for seeking equal treatment of all citizens, among others), perhaps more such freedom conversations should be taking place, both online and off. Our think-tank thankfully meets with groups of students on a regular basis to discuss such pressing issues of the day.

It is our hope that at least the next generation of Malaysians will become the logical and reasonable minds of tomorrow’s leaders.

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