By Tunku Zain Al-’Abidin
Part Two of our Federal Constitution is headed “Fundamental Liberties”: here are articles about protecting the liberty of the person; prohibiting slavery and forced labour; protection against retrospective criminal laws and repeated trials; equality before the law; prohibition of banishment and freedom of movement; freedom of speech, assembly and association; freedom of religion; educational rights; and rights to property. Related matters concerning citizenship, elections and preventive detention are addressed elsewhere in the document.
Our early leaders spoke often about these rights. Our first Yang di-Pertuan Agong referred to the Federal Constitution as “a charter of our common belief that certain fundamental principles are essential to the dignity and self-respect of man”, while our first Prime Minister, who proclaimed Malaysia as a democracy founded upon liberty and justice, led the call for the formation of the National Human Rights Society (Hakam) on Human Rights Day (Dec 10, 1988).
Today there are many organisations working explicitly towards human rights objectives, while others combine on-the-ground services to the marginalised with an advocacy role. In addition there are the corporate responsibility arms of companies that indirectly promote similar causes, boosting the volunteer efforts that run shelters, orphanages, soup kitchens and homeschooling programmes.
In 1999 the government and parliament explicitly restated their commitment to human rights by passing the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia Act, leading to the establishment of Suhakam the next year. Its informative website outlines its long-term efforts across eight main areas of work, but many took note recently when its chairman Tan Sri Razali Ismail visited Maria Chin Abdullah who was being detained under the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012 (Sosma): some activists say that without that visit, she would likely have been detained for a longer period.
Overall, the signs from government in relation to human rights in recent times have ranged from lamentable at worst and confusing at best. For instance, in 2014 our Prime Minister was quoted as saying that “human rights-ism” goes against Muslim values, but in a rally to support the Muslim Rohingya on December 4 he referred to the Asean Charter’s commitment to human rights.
Contradictorily, Malaysia has not signed or ratified the 1951 United Nations Refugee Convention or related human rights conventions, including the International Conventions on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) and on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR). This inconsistency reduces “human rights” to a soundbite uttered according to the political conveniences of the day.
Furthermore, the use of the Sedition Act and Section 124B of the Penal Code has been condemned by bodies including the International Commission of Jurists and Amnesty International, while the passage of the National Security Council Bill (despite the lack of royal assent) attracted particular concern from the European Parliament. Overall, Malaysia hobbles in international human rights rankings as well as in wider league tables assessing democracy.
I was therefore encouraged to see human rights champions celebrated when Suhakam announced the winners of its Human Rights Awards, this year comprising Dr Madhusudhan Shammugam or the ‘Teddy Bear Doctor’ who provides medical care for the homeless in Kuala Lumpur at night, journalists Stephen Then Vui Fah and Boo Su-Lyn; Kraftangan Malaysia for its One District One Industry Programme; Mydin Mohamed Holdings for its Persons with Disabilities Programme; the Centre for Environment, Technology & Development (Cetdem); and Cabinet minister Datuk Paul Low.
Also to commemorate Human Rights Day, the ambassadors from the European Union, Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark hosted a screening of a film highlighting the role of Morocco’s morchidat: female religious leaders who work in schools and communities to provide counsel and counter radicalism.
This was followed by a panel discussion that quickly refocused on Malaysian issues, particularly the unilateral conversion of children to Islam: the status of the Perlis legislation vis-a-vis its own fatwa and the federal government’s amendments to the Law Reform (Marriage and Divorce) Act 1976 (which essentially replicates Negeri Sembilan’s policy since last year preventing unilateral conversion).
It is clear that today civil society also includes those who have a different take on human rights, who argue that it is not entirely compatible with our context, even a foreign concept. And indeed, current geopolitical shifts may mean that national governments need not pay attention to human rights domestically to get what they want from new allies internationally.
But our Federal Constitution and the intentions of its champions were quite clear about the primacy of the rights and liberties of Malaysians. To a leadership that goes all out to fight activity “detrimental to parliamentary democracy”, that should surely count for something.
Tunku Zain Al-’Abidin is founding president of Ideas