The later part of the 1980s was the decade of extreme turbulence politically and socially. The ruling
government faced internal challenges to its leadership, with UMNO (the United Malay National Organisation) splitting into two. Externally, civil society was voicing out loud against the government for its numerous violations. And like a wounded tiger, the government struck back – and it struck hard.
Ops Lalang 1987
We all know too well what happened in Operasi Lalang. 106 citizens, including civil society leaders, unionists, academicians, preachers – including Karpal Singh, Lim Kit Siang, Chandra Muzaffar, Irene Xavier, Dr Kua Kia Soong – and anyone considered to be dissidents were arbitrarily arrested. The media was gagged into submission and freedom of the press was in tatters. The Executive also decimated the only organ capable of checking its powers and protecting individual liberties – the Judiciary. Malaysia has not recovered ever since then.
In 1985, Sim Kie Chon, a poor labourer, was arrested
under the Internal Security Act 1960 (ISA) for possession of a firearm. He faced the mandatory death sentence under the ISA.
On 24th July of that year, then Vice President of the Bar Council, Param Cumaraswamy held a press conference to appeal to the Pardons Board to reconsider the downgrading of Sim Kie Chon’s sentence. He said,
“The people should not be made to feel that the severity of the law is meant only for the poor, the meek and the unfortunate whereas the rich, the powerful and the influential can somehow seek to avoid the same severity.” – Param Cumaraswary
This statement, harmless as it sounds, landed Cumaraswamy with sedition charges. He was later found not guilty.
Judicial Crisis 1988
When Tun Salleh was suspended as Lord President, Tun Abdul Hamid was appointed as Acting Lord President.
Manjit Singh Dhillon, the then secretary of the Bar Council, signed an affidavit in support to claim that Acting Lord President Tun Abdul Hamid abused his official position to protect his own personal interests and was guilty of misbehaviour deserving his removal from office. Manjit was instead cited for contempt of court and sentenced with a RM5,000-00 fine and in default 3 months imprisonment.
It is against this backdrop of violations of our most fundamental freedoms and human rights that something needed to be done.
And it was none other than our 1st Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj who led the clarion call for change.
At the 40th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948 on 10 December 1988, the NGO community in Malaysia, together with Tunku Abdul Rahman, Tun Hussein Onn, Raja Aziz Addruse, Dr. Tan Chee Khoon and Tan Sri Ahmad Nordin declared to form a National Human Rights Society – HAKAM, to promote and defend human rights in Malaysia.
Tunku was also HAKAM’s first pro-term chairman.
In 1989, Tun Hussein Onn, our 3rd Prime Minister, officially applied for the registration of HAKAM.
HAKAM was the very first human rights NGO in Malaysia to be registered under the Societies Act 1966.
Tun Hussein Onn then became HAKAM’s 2nd pro-term chairman.