EVERYTHING I know that’s worth knowing about human rights, I learnt from Raja Aziz Addruse. As the world commemorated International Human Rights Day on 10 Dec, I found myself remembering this amazing man, all he taught me, and all he left behind after his passing five months ago.
Raja Aziz was, and still is, a bit of a legend among lawyers. He was a key player at critical points in Malaysia’s history, such as when the Lord President Tun Salleh Abas was sacked in 1988. His former clients included ex-Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and former Communist Party of Malaya leader Chin Peng. He was Bar Council president thrice in his career, and the go-to person whenever any important constitutional or human rights issue needed arguing before the courts. He regularly spoke up against government abuse of power and interference with the judiciary long before it was fashionable to do so.
Raja Aziz, however, would be the last person to call himself a legend. I don’t think he would have known how to put on airs even if he had to.
A man of humility
I first met Raja Aziz in 2007 and had the privilege of writing and researching with him for a few years. When we talked about writing articles, he said he didn’t want to write on his own. He wanted other, younger voices to be heard. Whenever we met, he never failed to see members of our writers’ collective out when we left. He would make sure tea and kuih were always prepared for everyone. He treated us like honoured guests whenever we lunched at the Royal Lake Club or Royal Selangor Club.
Despite being a legal luminary, Raja Aziz wasted no time with any notion that he was in any way special. Perhaps that’s partly why he was, and is, so well-loved at the Malaysian Bar. In a profession where it’s easy to be acutely aware of our own importance, we can all recognise the anomaly and distinction of Raja Aziz’s unique combination of eminence and humility.
Human rights school
Writing articles and conducting research for Raja Aziz involved frequent half-hour chats in his office. I now realise those chats were probably better than any human rights course I could have enrolled in. No matter how convoluted an issue was, Raja Aziz was always clear-headed and principled. This enabled him to easily throw out the red herrings and political histrionics and to stay focused on an issue.
For example, when Pakatan Rakyat and Barisan Nasional politicians were busy accusing each other of being traitors over the wresting of Perak in February 2009, Raja Aziz saw it as a constitutional issue. He said the court should be the arbiter of whether the Perak constitution allowed the sultan to refuse the menteri besar’s request for the dissolution of the legislative assembly. In the meantime, he wrote, there was no need to harp on “Malay supremacy” or to shout “treason!”
While respecting the courts’ role as arbiter, however, Raja Aziz never shied away from criticising their decisions when appropriate. He was critical, for instance, of the civil court’s refusal to make decisions involving the conversion of children to Islam by one spouse. Raja Aziz argued that although the constitution stated that matters pertaining to Islam were under the syariah courts, nothing took away the civil court’s jurisdiction to adjudicate on an individual’s guaranteed right to freedom of religion. Thus, the civil courts were wrong in washing their hands off a problem that had caused and continues to cause unnecessary suffering to many.
Whatever the issue, Raja Aziz was always guided by principle, rather than practicalities. He was straight as an arrow, as they say. He would often complain that the country was becoming lawless, citing the running of red lights as an example. It’s something that stops me in my tracks whenever I’m tempted to shoot past an amber light.
“We must write about this”
Despite all the injustices he witnessed during his long legal career – often with government complicity – Raja Aziz was passionate about setting matters right when I met him in 2007. “We must write about this, Jo-Ann,” he would say about the latest episode of government heavy-handedness. “This is unacceptable. They cannot be allowed to do this.”
The last time I met him at a lunch in April 2011, he called me aside to express his concern that the Home Ministry wanted to stamp Malay-language Bibles with the ministry’s seal. “We should say something about it,” he said, alert as always when any fundamental freedom was breached.
Several of his friends told me how concerned he was about the government’s crackdown of the 9 July Bersih rally, shortly before he passed away on 12 July. I was unsurprised to hear it.
Raja Aziz was so passionate about human rights, I suspect he wouldn’t even want me to waste time writing about him. He would probably rather I write about the Peaceful Assembly Bill and comment on how the government is patronising citizens by “giving” them a right that’s already constitutionally theirs. How restrictions that render the freedom of assembly illusory should be declared void.
He might also want to comment on the banning of the Seksualiti Merdeka festival, as he was a great defender of freedom of expression. He liked to repeat Voltaire’s quote: “I may disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”
He would want me to keep calling the government to account for every one of its broken promises about fundamental liberties.
There’s a version of an old Norse myth that the heroic gods Odin, Thor and Heimdall will one day be defeated by the evil gods, led by Loki, and die in a predestined end called Ragnarok. The good gods know of this end and they keep fighting evil anyway, because that is who they are and they can’t be otherwise.
Thinking of Raja Aziz and his passion for justice makes me think of this myth. For him, speaking up and doing the right thing was never about himself; never about fame or glory or even about winning. It was just who he was. It was the only way for him to live.
Not that he was in any way pessimistic. He continued speaking up and caring as much as he did because I think he always believed the government would someday be compelled to listen, and the courts would finally live up to their role in upholding the constitution. A stark contrast indeed to those who believe there’s no point in trying because nothing will change.
None of us can be him. It’s hard to even try. But I, like many others, will always remember and miss him. And whenever the government does anything particularly ridiculous, I will always hear his quiet, cultured voice saying, “Jo-Ann, we must write about this. This is unacceptable.”