‘We didn’t fight the British to become independent so that we can oppress our own people,’ says the new chairman of Suhakam.
As the new Suhakam chairman, Tan Sri Razali Ismail says he won’t be going to barricades trying to knock down doors on human rights. For him, there is no “They against Us” or “Us against Them” when it comes to Suhakam and the government.
“We want to try to build a kind of sophistication where the government knows where we are coming from and trust us and don’t look at us as an agent to challenge or destroy them. We are not out to bash them,” he says.
The former diplomat believes “it is possible to persuade” the government on human rights. “I have to try my talent and my charm on the people inside, which is not going to be easy.”
Razali says Suhakam wants to talk with civil servants on human rights and hopes it can be introduced as part of the school syllabus to start the kids on it from young. He says “ it is a poor show on the part of the government” that Suhakam’s annual report is not tabled and debated in parliament.
“I am prepared to go on bended knees to meet with the Speakers of Dewan Rakyat and Dewan Negara on this. They must look at us.’’
The following is the full interview with Razali.
Q: How would you describe the state of human rights in the country now compared to 10 years ago?
We have come quite a long way. We are on the verge of being a developed country. With that, comes the attributes of human rights. In the olden days, we never used to bathe in hot water but now virtually all the urban population in Malaysia wants to bathe in hot water. These are things which are important to people naturally.
In the past, some of us including me used to wake up at 4.30am, trek an hour to the road to wait for a bus to go to school. This is hardly heard of these days, although it might still be happening in some places.
So human rights has come a long way in the country. But that is not the end of the journey. There are many things to do. The more developed the country is, the greater the expectations.
Q : Wouldn’t you say there is a deteriorating of human rights now compared to ten years ago because there are now more religious tensions?
It is the people who make the tensions. I don’t necessarily point a finger at the government for the religious tension. There are many other reasons for that. I am not an apologist to the government at all. Believe you me. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here.
You have to understand history. The British detained people arbitrarily during the colonial days. But now, there is to a greater extent a system for redress.
And there are aspects of human rights which the country must get into seriously like the deprivation of people.
Some of them are not Malaysian nationals. Then there are those who are marginalised. These people have to be helped.
The philosophy of Malaysia is to help all people. Historically, there are no permanent people in Malaysia.
Everyone came here from some area or other and they came with hopes and dreams, If their dreams don’t happen, they hope it will happen in their children’s lifetime. So the government must understand the aspirations of people that they want to move ahead and do better and the government must help.
We cannot have a country that is truncated between the rich and the poor. If everyone is poor, fine. If everyone is rich, that’s great. But you can’t have a huge disparity of income. We have to deal with that. To me, that is very important. This is what Suhakam wants to look into. We must get a lot of support from people who realise it is a bad thing to have these disparities.
Q: But the government already has been coming up with a lot of policies over the years to address disparities and grow the middle class?
Yes the government has done a lot. We have better access to housing and greater access to education. But people who are not Malaysians are not getting it. We have migrant workers here who think of Malaysia as Shangri-la. They prosper here and we have to help them. The global responsibility of Malaysia is linked to our own constitution. Suhakam will pay a lot of attention in dealing with that.
Q: You were a diplomat and a UN special envoy to Myanmar. Is that why you have taken a special interest in this?
I carry the bad habits of being a diplomat in trying to look at things, somewhere in between – at possibilities.
I don’t go to barricades and try to knock down doors. We have not come to a point where we have do this in Malaysia. I think it is possible to persuade.
I don’t see government as “They against Us” or “Us against Them”. The government is part of our democratic set up.
I believe there are – not necessarily in the closet – many human rightists within the government. We have to identify them, pluck them out and get them to help us. I am sure their sentiment is towards getting us, Suhakam, to do something so that they can come out and support us.
Q: How would your work as a diplomat be an advantage or an disadvantage for you as Suhakam chairman?
I think a lot of it will be advantageous. I was relatively successful outside in persuading governments and people outside.
Now, I have to try my talent and my charm on people inside, which is not going to be easy.
I think in Malaysia, there should be more dialogue. We’ve got to put things on the table and talk.
There are many people with goodwill but for one reason or other they have been compartmentalised. The fact that we have so many races also compounds that problem. We are more comfortable when we are within our own community which is a pity. Because the constitution does not see it that way.
We are not reading the constitution enough. We have to educate people about human rights. The ethos of that education must be about explaining the human rights that was built into our constitution – things like tolerance, inter faith, acceptance of things and getting everybody to succeed. Geographically and historically, Malaysia is at aconfluence, the meeting point of many things. Way back in the 17th century, there was a kind of wisdom. Malacca was very successful – almost like Venice in those days. Why have we lost that ability to see people in that universal context?
Q: What would you say to those who argue you are too soft, too diplomatic to fight for human rights which can get nasty and ugly?
What do they want me to do? Should I be like the Japanese novelist (Yukio) Mishima and disembowel myself publicly? What are they looking for? We have not got to that stage. And we will never get to that stage where people pour petrol and set themselves on fire like in South Korea or Tunisia. We are not that desperate. Don’t denigrate us like that.
The public have the right to say that (I am a softie). But I think they would be profoundly wrong and really off track. I am quite resilient. What you want me to be is pugnacious. And there is a time for that.
Q: But aren’t diplomats “schooled’’ in defending government policy?
There are many times when I was serving the Government that I disagreed with the Government and cajoled them. They did not reprimand or pressure me but they will try to persuade me. And we find a compromise and this has worked.
In Malaysia, we need to try to get and persuade the main stream about the middle road. We cannot afford to deal with extremists who believe in the supremacy of their views and who cannot stand other people’s view.
A person can have an extreme view but as long as he can accept other people’s views as part of the mix, that’s fine.
It’s like we are on this super highway of 10 lanes. Whether we are in a Proton or a Porsche, a smaller or bigger car, we are all going in the right direction. The trajectory is positive. That is what we should be doing in Malaysia.
That is an area where a diplomat can function quite well. Otherwise, who have you got who can do the job? Politicians? Politicians come from political parties which are partisan one way or another. Who else do you have? Priests, the ulama? They are keepers of certain ideas and beliefs which they hold on to very strongly.
Q: Would Suhakam be fighting for human rights of a terrorist in detention?
You mean the ones who let off bombs and all that? They are depriving me and my colleagues of our human rights by killing us. They don’t even give me a chance to explain my point.
If they are in jail, we at least give them a chance to live. Someone else might say get rid of them but we (Malaysia) don’t go for the extreme action. We have no Guantánamo Bay. We have to convince them to change their views and to de-radicalise.
Of course, they should be allowed to see their family. But I don’t know about access to a lawyer because that has its downside in these circumstances.
We do want accountability to some extent. The police and the authorities should explain to us why they need to do it and why it should be done. And they should listen to us and our suggestions on how to make it more “palatable’’.
Q: What about the rights of liberals like someone who believes he is God or the imam mahdi (messiah) or those (Muslims) who believe a woman can be a imam?
I met so many of those in New York. I had people come up and tell me ‘What you are talking about is bulls**t but I will defend to the death your right to say it.’
The furthest aspect of liberalism to me is bulls**t. You only enjoy human rights if there is responsibility to society, to an area where you live in. If you want to live in a cave somewhere that’s different.
But if you live in society, you must make things work. When you come to a traffic light you must stop.
Q: Suhakam’s budget has been slashed by half to just RM5.5mil So why can’t you get the message that Suhakam doesn’t matter to the government?
There is a drastic slashing of budget in many ministries. Wisma Putra’s budget has been slashed by 30% and the ambassadors allowances too. What they could do in a year, now they only have the money to do in three months. So everybody has suffered. There is nothing wrong to say that everyone’s budget has been cut. At the same time, the Government has been moving things, You can see huge advancement for infrastructure like the LRT and all that. These are things which help the people and enhances our human rights.
Q: You have said that you would get additional funding from outside. But wouldn’t that affect Suhakam’s integrity?
Are you talking as a priest? Do you think money can change us? How much would you put on the table? RM2mil? RM5mil? And that affects our integrity? No! If it is about that, surely I wouldn’t be a part of this. The integrity of the secretariat is impeccable.
Money is important. The government has promised us they would adequately provide the funding. If it is not adequate, then logically, it should release us and let us look at other sources. The operational clause here would be “adequate’’.
If I need to send a Suhakam officer somewhere, what’s wrong with asking a group, the government or a UN agency to provide for it? Lots of people go on scholarships and on trips like that. I see many possibilities but we have to be careful.
There is always a political programme and an agenda, like if a bunch of countries decide that Malaysia should be influenced this way and we should be the shining example of how a human-rights-worshipping country would be like in the eyes of EU or something like that. Well, I am not going to fall for that.
Q: How would the massive budget cut affect the work of Suhakam?
We are okay until Nov. If we don’t receive any additional grant from the government in Nov, we would then face a deficit which could even impact salaries and emolument to our staff.
This year, we proposed a budget of RM1.3mil to carry out our activities and programmes. With the cut in budget, we have to prioritise and scale down. It is going to be heart breaking.
We want to look more comprehensively at how we can educate societies about human rights. That is a very daunting and challenging work because we are going into the area of education and syllabus in schools.
The authorities concerned can be very territorial so we have to do it properly. A diplomat can persuade.
We can go in quietly and get them to see it is in their interest to try and teach some human rights at schools.
I am told other countries like South Korea is already doing this. And it is on the cards for Myanmar. Start them when they are young so that society is changed from the bottom up.
Q: How would you describe the relationship between Suhakam and the government because there have been times when it was a bit tense?
We have miles to go. I see our relationship with the Government as being sophisticated. We try to build a kind of sophistication where the government knows where we are coming from and trust us. And they don’t look at us as an agent to challenge or destroy them.
The government has done so many things that has made it possible for people to benefit from human rights. It still has a lot of things to do especially in terms of aspects of what the individuals want. We are talking about stopping torture, the need for more transparency and all that.
The government must realise where we are coming from. We are not out to bash them. It doesn’t serve any purpose to just talk about principles of human rights and condemn the government for every breach of the principles.
We can remind the government of the breach of principles. You’ve got to understand that the government is not coming from the days where it does not want human rights because they were the one who put human rights there.
If they don’t do enough, you can accuse them of tokenism.
As I said, there are some human rightists in the governmental structures. If you believe in religion you have to be a human rightist. Not just Islam but every religion believes in the right of the human person. There is no running away from that. Human rights is about us. Yes, there are global values and we adhere to that completely. We are also trying to persuade the government to accede to more the international treaties.
Q: Would you be able to say which treaties?
So far Malaysia have only signed three out of nine treaties. We should do two or three more.
We should look at the Treaty against Torture. We don’t have a blood thirsty regime and the police have done a good job even though sometimes they are harsh and hard. We are all Malaysians. There is no propensity to torture people that way.
The other treaty we are looking at is The International Convention for the Protection of all Persons From Enforced Disappearance.
This is the old story of Latin America when they used to take people they don’t agree with on a plane, open the door of the plane and kick them out. That is completely out of date. It is not in the human spirit to do these kind of things any more.
Q: With the threat of IS and Abu Sayyaf, wouldn’t the police need torture as an ‘’instrument’’ to extract information from the militants to keep the country safe?
There are limits to torture. You can apply pressure, duress, force to get something done. This has been known since the days of the Spanish Inquisition where they tie people and split their body into two. I’ve heard of things in Malaysia in the past when a man is tortured by impaling him on a nipah tree, bottom up to die a slow death. We have come a long way since then. In this day and age you can’t hide those kind of things. People came to know about the water boarding in Guantánamo Bay. So you can’t escape from some degree of accountability.
The institutions that we have now, the people that support the democratic institution want to know what you (the authorities) do with (detained) people.
I am on the side of the people who want to be safe. I don’t want people here to get blown up. I don’t want us to go into that kind of situation where it is unsafe. We shouldn’t feel vulnerable No Malaysian should feel vulnerable from the elements, from the authorities and from their own fellow citizens.
Q: We know you as a diplomat. But would you feel comfortable going to the ground and talking to a drug addict, a beggar or a protestor?
Sure but with a purpose . I am not Mother Theresa! I am not going there to talk to cater to his ego. Sometimes, you go there and these people expect something from you and you disillusion them, Then they will point an accusatory finger at you.
Q: But do you think people would feel comfortable coming to you because of your stature? People would be segan (embarrassed) to approach you?
I am retired. I have no stature. I have a personality. There’s a big difference. They don’t have to approach me. There are other seven other commissioners in Suhakam and three of them are women they can go to.
Our door is always open. People can walk in and talk about human rights. But not just to complain but also to give us ideas of what we should do. I need the public to help me. For me, the public is my ‘constituency’.
And the public would be the ones who can persuade the government to make the changes.
Q: What do you think of the fact that Suhakam publishes its annual reports every year and every year it is ignored in parliament?
That is poor show on the part of the government! Parliament is the body that made us come to life. They were the ones who passed the act to bring us into existence. And now Parliament doesn’t want to look closely at our report. They just want us to go through the motion of sending the report in, saying they have no time to debate it.
The public is aghast that this is happening! That we are prevented from doing our duty because Parliament does not want to debate!
I know there will be partisanship in Parliament. Yes! But that is the context of democracy. Parliamentary democracy means there must be a debate, good or bad. If this is not done, then that part of the democratic fabric is not adhered to.
And the public should know how the government looks at what we have said. I see no reason whatsoever why they can’t do this.
I would really like to go even on bended knees to talk to Tan Sri Pandikar Amin Mulia and S. A Vigneswaran, the two speakers of Dewan Rakyat and Dewan Negara to see how we can find some time to debate the report.
If they say ‘There is no time’, then we will settle for a parliamentary select committee where we could have members from both sides to discuss our issues at an interim level before we go for a full debate in parliament.
They must look at us. We are as important as MACC. We, too, came to existence by an act of Parliament.
We have actually not done enough to cultivate the good will of the parliamentarians. So we should really go and talk to them. We will go talk to them. We have talked and interacted with the police on specifics. Before something is contemplated, it would be good if the police could indicate to us their line of thinking.
Q: So the parliament and the police are the two bodies that Suhakam will be trying to cultivate?
No. How about education and children in school and public bodies? The most important element of change would be civil servants. We really have to deal with the civil servants.
In Singapore, during Lee Kuan Yew’s time the civil servants outdid the political leaders in terms of defending the realm in such a strong and fierce way and allowed for nothing to change. So we mustn’t get into that situation.
There is resistance coming from the civil servants here but it is not a hopeless case.
We have not worked hard and discussed enough with the civil servants. Can we do more than just meetings? I can go around and talk to any group that has relevance with what we are trying to do.
Q: Human rights here is highly politicised. If Suhakam tries to talk to civil servants on human rights, won’t this raise suspicion in the government that Suhakam is trying to get civil servants to take the side of the opposition?
I don’t want to get into this imbroglio of political parties fighting each other. They are doing it for their own reasons, and to try and win votes. I don’t want to get into that crossfire. We try our best not to be part of that. We don’t represent that. But there are a set of principles we are looking at.
And I don’t see why there should be two ways – that if you are opposition you look at human rights one way and if you are government you look at it another way. That’s nuts and not clever!
For the sake of Malaysia, human rights is an issue, like environment, that actually should come under motherhood. We should take care of our people.
We didn’t fight the British to become independent so that we can oppress our own people. At the moment there is a lot of stridency with political parties going for each other. We have to go and explain human rights to the political parties.
But we have to be very careful that what we do doesn’t mean that we are going in this or that direction. We have to be quite judicious about this. Maybe there is a role for a diplomat in that.
Q: What has been the biggest achievement of Suhakam in the 16 years it has been in existence?
With all respect to all the things that has been done, I would wish we had done more. But there were many circumstances. In things like this, the best time to get things done is at the beginning because when you are new and you have the public goodwill and everyone wants Suhakam to succeed. That would have been the time to make the most of it. Now, more than 10 years on, people already have formed their perception. We have to do much better than that.
I want the public to help me to put certain aspects of human rights in the manifesto of all political parties.
Why can’t political parties commit to human rights before they are elected? Political parties are committed to reducing taxes for the lower income and getting fares to be cheaper and all that.
But there has to be a clearer commitment to the environment, commitment to the safety of people, of the individual to human rights. Put it in your political party platform.
I am told and I am convinced it is true that the National Inquiry into the Land Rights of the Indigenous People is our best achievement. We came up with the report with 18 recommendations which was forwarded to the government and after that they formed a special task force. And subsequently a special cabinet committee was formed.
The findings were very good. But that was 2 years ago. We need public and NGO bodies to examine it and remind government and ask since then what is being done since then? A cabinet committee can linger on for a long time and nothing gets done. So I need public and press support.
Q: What is Suhakam’s stand on Bersih planning to hold another rally Bersih 5?
Bersih should be a bit sophisticated. It doesn’t want to be part of what some of the opposition political parties with all its infighting are trying to do to get rid of the government. But no one can prevent them from asking for accountability. That’s how I see it.
But if you want to make a point why do you want to go to the streets? You damage a lot of property and all that. We are not that desperate in Malaysia and all that like Tunisia or Tahrir Square (in Egypt during the Arab Spring uprising to call for regime change) .
I am a Democrat but I am not a take-over-the-town-or-the-Padang Democrat. They sat there for 3 days (in reference to the Bersih 4 rally last Aug) and don’t wash . Why?
Promise us that they will clean it up properly and give it back in pristine condition.
The authorities have to weigh what is the best interest. There have been instances before (during previous rallies before the Public Assembly Act was passed) where things have broken out which affected the public’s welfare,. We don’t want that. But the right to demonstrate, yes, that is a human right.
Q: Everyone dreams big and has ideals when they come into office . Are we going to see a tokenism chairman when you leave office?
Once you take a position publicly, you are responsible. You are accountable. I am not a politician but I do understand the weight I carry on my shoulders and the expectation. And I am a patriot. I would never dream of letting my country down.
That is a very legitimate question. You should check up on me every three to six months to see if I have not done very well. And you must always ask this question.