THE 1 Aug 2010 arrests at several peaceful candlelight vigils to protest 50 years of the Internal Security Act (ISA) is yet another symptom of a government desperate to maintain control.
After preventing protesters from convening at the vigil’s venue, Dataran Timur in Petaling Jaya, police were seen on video arresting participants as they walked out of Amcorp Mall with candles. Parti Sosialis Malaysia secretary-general S Arutchelvam is also seen just prior to his arrest, informing the crowd inside the mall that the police allowed them to exit, but only without candles.
As one of the protesters said, it is curious that in Malaysia, holding candles seems to have become some sort of threat to public safety worthy of arrest. It is at times like these that one wonders: Is there anyone in the government even remotely trying to improve the state of human rights in Malaysia and to respect the fundamental liberties in our constitution? Other than cosmetic touch-ups and public relations exercises, what has the government actually done to ensure that human rights and dignities are respected?
Nothing very much, according to panelists at a recent Malaysian Law Conference (MLC) forum titled Hard Talk on Human Rights. The highest score a panelist gave was 5/10 for Malaysia’s human rights record. Activist Zainah Anwar gave Malaysia only 2/10, while child rights advocate and Suhakam commissioner James Nayagam gave a 3/10. Even former MCA president and ex-minister Datuk Seri Ong Tee Keat could only give a rating of between four and five out of 10.
“There just seems to be no political will or courage to do what’s needed in Malaysia,” said Zainah, explaining her low score. “There are still so many areas that need to be addressed.”
Indeed there are, and too many to list in a single column. The continued existence of the draconian ISA, which allows for indefinite state detention without trial, is just one of many areas where we are below par. The supposed review of the ISA, announced in April 2009 after Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak assumed office, has yet to materialise. If we see this much government foot-dragging for a mere review of the outdated law, how long will it be before we see the abolishment or even substantial amendment of the ISA to prevent it from being abused?
And the ISA isn’t the only legislation that allows for detention without trial. Far more arrests have been made in recent years under the Emergency (Public Order and Prevention of Crime) Ordinance 1969 and the Dangerous Drugs (Special Preventive Measures) Act 1985. At the forum, Nayagam said he even knew of students who were arrested under the Emergency Ordinance for fighting in school.
In certain areas, Malaysia even seems to be regressing. The police have become increasingly strict in cracking down on what they call “illegal assemblies”, especially if these assemblies are a protest against the Barisan Nasional (BN) administration. But despite repeated findings by Suhakam of police brutality and a call to repeal the need for a police permit for peaceful assemblies, the arrests and harassment continue.
And then there are media controls. Instead of abolishing the paternalistic Printing Presses and Publications Act, the government instead wants to set up a “special committee” to monitor the media and stop them spreading false news. There seems to be a belief on the BN’s part that if they do their utmost to control what Malaysians read, hear and see, Malaysians will somehow be “guided” to agree with the official line.
A mature democracy must necessarily involve the people’s freedom to hold differing views from that of the government. But our government does not seem willing to have a democracy which allows that. And if it needs to suppress the people to ensure nobody holds contrary views, it has demonstrated it is more than willing to do that.
As PKR member Datuk Zaid Ibrahim said at the MLC forum, “There are no basic rights in Malaysia. There are elections, but they’re not fair. We have newspapers, but all are controlled [by the government]. Many live in fear. And it’s getting worse.”
Back to my original question – is our government sincerely trying to make things better? Compare Malaysia to South Africa, also a developing nation with its own share of human rights struggles and violations. When addressing the MLC on 29 July 2010, South African Chief Justice of the Constitutional Court Sandile Ngcobo spoke of his country’s experience in enforcing social and economic rights.
Justice Ngcobo spoke of how the Constitutional Court upheld not just civil but political rights, such as freedom of religion, expression and association. As the guardian of the South African constitution, it also has a duty to uphold rights to housing, healthcare, food, water and social security.
In an area long thought to be unenforceable as it involves the allocation of limited government resources, Ngcobo spoke convincingly of how the court has evolved its jurisprudence to make such concepts work. The South African model has now become a precedent for other countries looking to include social and economic issues as enforceable rights.
Like Malaysia, South Africa is far from perfect and has troubles of its own. But what we see in South Africa, which is lacking here, is at least an effort on the part of those in power to head in the right direction.
The framers of the South African constitution unequivocally guaranteed fundamental liberties such as freedom of speech to the people. This could perhaps explain why South Africa is ranked 33 out of 175 on Reporters without Borders’ Press Freedom Index 2009. Compare that with Malaysia, which ranked 131, just five steps above Zimbabwe.
It would be unrealistic to have everything put right all at once. But it would be heartening if there were at least some signs that our leaders are finally understanding that respecting human rights is about respecting the dignity of other human beings; that a government which refuses to recognise the people’s right to their own opinion is not fit to rule. Not in a democracy, for certain. Unless, of course, the BN doesn’t intend for Malaysia to be one.
Ding Jo-Ann hopes for a day when Malaysians will be able to gather in a field, light candles, chant “hidup rakyat” and go home peacefully instead of being chased around by anti-riot police.
The Nut Graph needs your support