The Little Lion of Puchong is little no more

At first look, Communications and Multimedia Minister Gobind Singh Deo, 46, is intimidating – that is until he breaks into a smile. There’s a warm, almost mischievous twinkle in the eyes of the towering Puchong MP who bears a striking resemblance to his father, the late DAP stalwart Karpal Singh. It has only been over a year since he made history as the first Sikh to be appointed to the Cabinet and the father-of-four has proven to be one of the hardest working ministers in Malaysia Baharu. Despite the vastness of a portfolio that covers everything ranging from broadband infrastructure to fake news issues, he seems to keep on top of things. Passionate about making Internet connectivity a “Constitutional right”, the Penang-born lawyer sat down for a chat with Sunday Star before the start of Parliament tomorrow. Like father, like son: Karpal (right) leaving the police headquarters in Penang after lodging a report in connection with a case he was working on in 1992 as Gobind is seen carrying his father’s bag. — The Star To tackle Internet misuse, he’s proposing the setting up of a Parliamentary Select Committee at this meeting. “We have to move quickly. Social media impacts everyone so we must have adequate discussions with people before a decision is made, ” he says. “A Parliamentary Select Committee with clear objectives, terms of reference and report timeline can ensure that all layers of society are represented.” How is the ministry planning to strike a balance between responsible use of social media and freedom of expression? There have been calls by the public for the ministry to look at some statements made on the Internet, including those on portals. But no law is being formulated for that purpose. We already have laws that deal with matters like these. Last year, we launched the “double the speed at half the price” broadband initiative and that has yielded results. As at the middle of this year, prices of fixed broadband has come down by 49% and speeds have increased by 10 times in some cases. We’ve seen almost 22% increase in demand for broadband since. So while we prepare for the future and provide greater Internet access to people, there will also be greater use of social media and the Internet to communicate, share and exchange information at a faster rate. When that happens, we can expect Internet-associated problems to increase. One area of concern is how the media will play its part in shaping the minds of people in the coming years. How a country develops depends heavily on the information that’s disseminated to the public, so we need to ensure that people have access to information that’s correct and verified. But it’s not as simple as that because when we look at an article, there may be parts that are true, parts that are comments based on those facts, and parts that are opinions based on facts either in the article or in the mind of the author when he wrote the article. It’s complex if an article is lengthy and there are different parts with different ramifications and implications. To what extent do you allow media freedom and to what extent do you regulate it? This government supports press freedom but that does not mean that there’s no limit to it. There are laws which deal with cases of incitement, where the article brings about public unrest and impacts national security. Having regard for these complexities and taking into account that Malaysia is a country in which many people from different backgrounds and races live together, we must ensure that we promote freedom so that people can express their views freely, learn and benefit from that exchange, and are allowed to raise their concerns about issues around them. But we must make sure that how those comments are expressed does not offend. We have to look at these carefully. This is where the challenge is. When will the media council be set up? I’ve made it a point to ensure that as far as possible, the media itself sets up the council. I was reluctant to put up any suggestions until I got feedback from the group of media representatives put together by (media and communications adviser in the Prime Minister’s Office) Datuk A. Kadir Jasin. This group came up with various proposals that were detailed and were very good. It gave an overview of what needs to be done in terms of structure, how the council would operate, funding, laws that would need to be amended and repealed, and dispute mechanisms – which is very important because that’s a major part that the council has to look into. Hopefully, by this month, I will be able to present the paper to the Cabinet, and with their views set up a pro tem committee, get everyone together and move ahead with it by the end of the year. You’re looking to tighten the scope of Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998 (CMA). Is that any different from having an Anti-Fake News Act?Yes, it is. The Anti-Fake News Act deals with a situation where if something is false, prima facie it becomes criminal. That’s a problem because where do you draw the line? If we had a conversation that was just between us, and there’s a factual error in what I said, does it mean that if a report is lodged against me, I’ve committed a criminal offence and I can be penalised for it? That’s not what we want. And that’s why we say that such a provision is tied to serious abuse – especially politically – as it can be used against anyone. The Malaysian Communications and Multimedia Commission (MCMC) is tasked with assisting the police when there are investigations that deal with the technical aspects of the complaint. For example, if something appears on Facebook and there’s a need to verify the account, MCMC prepares a report and sends it to the police. It’s for the police to complete investigations and then send the Investigation Paper to the Attorney General’s Chambers, which then decides if action is to be taken. The MCMC’s enforcement agency needs legal powers to carry out their investigations so those parts will remain in CMA. The CMA is being looked at holistically. We’re not going to repeal the whole CMA but Section 233 is too wide. The Home Ministry is looking to see how we can amend the Penal Code so that we have provisions in it that deal with problems related to electronic media use. Once we’re able to do that, we can tighten provisions of the CMA and deal with those problems. So we are waiting for proposals from the Home Ministry on the Penal Code. (Home Minister) Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin told me they’re working on a list of Bills so hopefully, that’s something we can talk about soon. Are we looking to define fake news?One suggestion is to consider whether or not mere factual error can amount to a criminal offence or whether there should be a mechanism that operates before one can classify it as such. For example, if someone states something that is factually incorrect but does not impact on anyone, national security, religious sensitivities, or anything that results in public disorder, then is it a criminal offence? So to classify fake news as being criminal per se, is to take it too far but if one can show that a particular statement was made and a particular fact was alluded to, knowing full well that it is incorrect, with intent to cause public disorder, offend religious sensitivities or affect national security, then the question is whether a criminal offence has been committed. I’m still collecting views from different people on this. How is the review of the Personal Data Protection Act (PDPA) 2010 coming along?Work’s ongoing. It’s being conducted by the Personal Data Protection Department under my ministry. There are many areas we’re looking at. The General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) have become the focal point of many countries and a hot topic. The GDPR has many provisions which are very important and helpful but we have to consider requirements that are unique to us. So we’re going to look at the GDPR, the different recommendations that have been put forward by stakeholders and come up with our own model to see what’s suitable for us to present here. There’ll be an amendment and improvement of the current Act. That’s something we can see going into Parliament by the middle of next year. In 2008, Karpal, the Tiger of Jelutong, who was at the Penang state assembly to witness your brother Jagdeep’s swearing-in ceremony, told The Star that he was “very proud” of his sons and while “they may not have teeth as strong as mine yet, with exposure and experience, I am sure they will also have my bite.” Is it time to drop the ‘little’ from your “Little Lion of Puchong” moniker?I’ve put on some weight, yes (laughs). We’ve come a long way from 2008. We’ve moved from Opposition to being governments of states, and now we’ve gone on to become government at the federal level. So you learn and develop a way of doing things over a period of time. He had a huge impact on how I approached politics and law from a young age because of his consistency and persistence in bringing about the change he believed in. He would not back down, especially on matters of principle, and that’s what we remember him for. That’s what shaped Mr Karpal Singh. We have different challenges and responsibilities today, but I always fall back on what I learnt from him. When you’re in difficult circumstances, the basic principles that you learn from an icon like him steer you in a direction that helps you make a decision. Of course, I don’t think we’ll find anyone who can replace the great Karpal Singh but we have a very challenging path ahead of us as well. And all of us need to make sure that we’re in a position to do what’s right and to make those difficult decisions. The people of Malaysia have given us a huge mandate so we have to do whatever we can to improve things for them. As a youth growing up in Penang, I hear you were quite the hipster – a party animal with waist-long hair. Is the wild streak still there? Very sensitive issue – I used to let my hair down, now I don’t have any hair left! I came back from the United Kingdom once and my father was waiting for me at the Bayan Lepas airport. I walked right up to him and he didn’t recognise me. Then he realised, and had this, “Oh-my-God-what-happened-to-this-guy” look. He was happy, and I gave him a hug. He said, “Come, let’s go home and have a drink.” That’s Karpal Singh for you. He was just a great guy. He understood and was very cool about things. Of course, there’s still that wild streak but I was never an animal (laughs). I lived in Penang, and at that time people listened to a lot of music. And there were a lot of parties. I had many friends who I’m still in touch with. I still listen to a lot of music. I enjoy it. I still have my pair of boots and my torn jeans – though I’m not sure they will fit anymore. I make it a point to look at the lighter side of things and to live my life. I’ve got four sons – my eldest is a teenager and the others are just a year or two away. So I make sure I’m able to jive with them. Do you miss lawyering? What was your most memorable case?Definitely. I really miss practice. Towards the later part of my practice, I argued quite a number of Constitutional points and appeals, and those are the ones that impacted me most. We fought my late father’s sedition appeal all the way. Dr Azmi Sharom’s sedition case that I did with Datuk Malik Imtiaz – all three of us were schoolmates. We’ve known each other for a long time. Our parents and families are all friends from Penang. When you argue a case like that, you realise how you’ve grown up and how important it is to give it your best. That applies to all clients because sometimes lawyers focus so much on the law that we overlook the human side of it. When you represent friends and your own father, then you realise that it’s not just lawyering. It’s about being able to defend somebody and something that you really believe in. There are a lot of memories, interesting incidents in court with judges and magistrates, and funny stories as well. I look back on the cases I did with my late father – we had a lot of fun and laughed so much. One would think that he was a very stern man but he was really humorous. Many people do not know this about him. He’s somebody I really enjoyed working with. Those are the memories I will always remember. Sometimes when I’m feeling a bit down, I’ll think about those days.

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