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The moral imperative of disobeying unjust laws

THE day after police forcefully broke up peaceful candlelight vigils held on 1 Aug 2010 against the Internal Security Act (ISA), and arrested 36 people in Petaling Jaya and Penang, I followed a debate on Twitter. It was between a young lawyer and a Barisan Nasional (BN) Member of Parliament (MP). The gist of their positions was this:

BN MP: It’s not okay to break the law, in this case the Police Act, which regulates public assembly, to protest another law that you disagree with, the ISA.

Young lawyer: Civil disobedience, in this case, the breaking of one unjust law to protest another unjust law, is okay.

Can one wrong be used to correct another? Should bad laws be obeyed? Is this even a concept that the BN understands?

Police at the scene of the anti-ISA rally in Petaling Jaya on 1 Aug 2010

Police at the scene of the anti-ISA rally in Petaling Jaya on 1 Aug 2010

Politicising human rights

The argument, as with most debates on Twitter, went nowhere. The young lawyer recalled apartheid in South Africa, the murder of Jews in Nazi Germany, and racial segregation in the US as examples of unjust laws which should, and were, opposed. The MP retorted that Malaysia could not be compared to those states which were “tyrannies”. The MP suggested that people ought to accept the Police Act as it was the law, and leave the courts to decide whether the Act contravened the Federal Constitution’s guarantee on freedom of assembly.

The argument finally hit a wall when the MP said the lawyer was politicising the issue. The lawyer denied this and said it was the MP who had politicised it first.

These days, that’s how ideological discourse in Malaysia ends. Whatever is pro-reform, supports human rights, and calls for more freedom and transparency smacks of an opposition agenda. And the opposition does indeed politicise such issues, which is not always helpful in public education about civil liberties.

That said, not everyone who supports having more civil liberties is pro-opposition. And this strikes me as too nuanced a notion for many BN politicians to grasp – that one can be pro-human rights but nonpartisan as well. It is as nuanced as saying that what is unlawful is not necessarily wrong. Indeed, the law doesn’t necessarily or always uphold what is right or just or good.

It is easier for the ruling party to lump civil society and the opposition together than to see beyond politics to the core of unjust laws like the ISA and the Police Act. For certain, it’s also in the BN’s interest to not admit that indefinite detention without trial is inhuman, and that the Police Act violates Article 10(1) of the Federal Constitution on the right to peaceful assembly.

Following conscience

Wilberforce, Gandhi and Parks (Public domain | Wiki commons)

Wilberforce, Gandhi and Parks (Public domain | Wiki commons)

What those in power fail to remember, or are selectively ignoring and even demonising, is the moral imperative of civil disobedience. The modern world is founded on rebellions against unjust laws and systems. The French Revolution was a rebellion against centuries of monarchic rule. The Protestant Reformation against the Catholic church’s greed and corruption. The Iranian Revolution toppled a repressive shah and ushered in an Islamic resurgence that influenced other parts of the world, including Malaysia.

Throughout history, challenges to the status quo have always begun with the act of one or a few persons following their conscience. William Wilberforce, the British MP who campaigned against slavery. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Christian minister who plotted Hitler’s assassination because he saw it necessary to oppose such evil. Rosa Parks, who defied segregation laws and sparked off mass protests in the US civil rights movement.

Closer to our region, José Rizal was executed for writing social commentaries and novels that inspired dissent among Filipinos against their Spanish colonisers. Mahatma Gandhi led India to independence by non-violently resisting the British. More recently, in 2007, Buddhist monks in Burma marched, at great peril to themselves, in protest against the military junta.

Malaysia itself has a history of civil disobedience, despite what leaders today say about protests not being part of our culture. Indeed, that was how the country was formed. Thousands of Malays demonstrated against the Malayan Union in 1946, paving the way to independence. Men like Penghulu Dol Said of Naning resisted the British by refusing to pay taxes and surrender his territory, resulting in a bloody war. Other early freedom fighters were Datuk Maharaja Lela of Pasir Salak, who assassinated British resident JWW Birch; Datuk Bahaman, Tok Gajah and son Mat Kilau, and Tok Janggut, all of whom clearly broke the law to lead rebellions against the British.

Pressuring Parliament

The BN MP and the young lawyer weren’t the only ones debating civil disobedience on Twitter. Other Twitterers, too, were giving their views on the police’s handling of the anti-ISA protesters. Some, quite obviously in support of the ISA and laws against public assembly, said the police should not be blamed as they were merely upholding the law. Their argument was, if you want to have public assembly without a permit, get Parliament to change the Police Act instead.

It’s an argument that, again, ignores the core of what makes the ISA unjust and the Police Act unconstitutional. This argument says that whether a law is good or bad is a separate issue for legislators. What matters is that as long as it is law, you must obey it. It fails to see that the act of holding a candle in protest is itself a call to Parliament to change bad laws.

Let’s also look at the realities of our Parliament, where the legislative agenda is decided by the executive. Then, consider amending the Police Act on public assembly. Would the executive even table such changes in the first place? If an opposition or independent MP were to move a motion or a private member’s bill for the Act to be amended, would it see the light of day? In the past, similar attempts by opposition MPs have been thwarted.

Rice (Public domain | Wiki commons)

Rice (Public domain | Wiki commons)

As for the police, the issue isn’t about blaming them for upholding the law. What police should do is enforce the law fairly. If permits can be given to BN-organised rallies, why can’t they be granted to opposition and civil society gatherings? If police could allow the Umno Youth protest against US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s visit in 2007, and the one against the “Allah” court judgment in Kampung Baru in January 2010, why can’t it allow anti-ISA candlelight vigils, which are far less emotive?

Responding to the public

How, then, should those in power respond to civil disobedience? For one, more politicians from the ruling party must learn to distinguish what is lawful but unjust from what is just but made illegal. And they must learn to understand civil disobedience as a moral force in history.

Secondly, that arresting people at peaceful protests is no longer an effective deterrent against future vigils. The authorities should have realised this from the Hindraf and Bersih rallies of 2007, and from the numerous anti-ISA and Perak vigils that have taken place since then until now. It makes more sense to let protesters express themselves for they will tire after awhile and disperse, than to deploy water cannons, tear gas and security personnel for nothing more than a brute show of force.

Thirdly, it can show the electorate that it can rise above politics and deal with civil liberties based on justice and universal principles of human rights by amending or abolishing unjust laws. Given the government’s stubbornness, however, that would likely need a revolution.

Deborah Loh quotes American lawyer Loius D Brandeis: “If we desire respect for the law, we must first make the law respectable.”

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10 Responses to “The moral imperative of disobeying unjust laws”

  1. m.k. says:

    UNMO can only survive on suppression of the masses. Even after GE12, there is not change in the attitude of the ruling government.

    Events like peaceful candlelight vigils must continue until GE13. By then, all Malaysians would be convinced that we need a CHANGE because BN has gone beyond its expiry date.

    We must vote for a credible and CLEAN government at GE13! Surely this is not impossible.

    • Pruan P. says:

      I agree with m.k. The law is not the limit, we created the law, ergo, we dictate where is the limit of law. I do believe that changing the government will lead to changes in our lives where major improvement in social, economic and politic will occurred most definitely.

      I would hope that GE13 will be different but my speculation will be that the BN government will still rule at the end of the day. Not until GE18 or GE19 that the government might be overruled. We need thinkers who would dedicate their life in serving the country not suppressing it from changing that may lead to better improvement.

      I feel the government is leading us into a stalemate position.

  2. francis ngu says:

    The defence of civil and political rights is the duty of every human being and is certainly not the monopoly of any political party.

    It attests to the immaturity of some (may be many) to abdicate such civic duty to the Opposition in Malaysia.


  3. Anonymous Coward says:

    This, perhaps, sounds silly but candle light procession of any kind would usually be frowned upon by the more conservative section of Malay society. To a lot of these folks, it’s alienating — due to religious reasons and symbols — and while some might sway to the middle ground and support the cause behind it, they can’t in good conscience approve of the way it’s being done. I’m rambling but this could be why there are many who don’t say anything. Something needs to be done about the way these vigils are being held.

    Perhaps by replacing the candles with pelitas?

    • Lainie Yeoh says:

      Haha..pelitas sound doable — i think anyone more confortable with pelitas should definitely bring one!

  4. MPhung says:

    A revolution would be a good way of trying to bring change, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that things will change after the revolution. Voting for a new government can bring about the revolution, in terms of a change in the people at the top of the government structure, but then everyone is still working and living in more or less the same system or culture, except that now we have acquired the ability to change these people.

    Granted, a change in leadership can give the right impetus for a change in the way things are done. Could it be that something stronger, like a different approach or system or culture is needed – an innovation or change that breaks the way things are done, that breaks the system of how things are done in the world, and forces something new to emerge. It would seem that laws are some of the things that are challenged, and perhaps broken as a result, for change to take place effectively. I would think that something more important has to be broken, rather than just laws, if we are to have real change.

    The use of the Internet is a close example of a change in the system of how information is disseminated helped bring about changes in government, and the use of mobile phones probably is the best example of change of how people work and live, where acceptance and penetration seems to be very pervasive. Which leads me to wonder what will be the real harbinger of change to our society and nation – an idea, or a culture? Or would it be simply a physical change that we can no longer ignore?

  5. Jamie says:

    The best illustration of double standards is Najib’s quote on the pro-Malay protests in front of the mosques.

    “We cannot stop them if they want to congregate in mosques”

    But here, the march was so peaceful. SO PEACEFUL.

  6. Marko says:

    Revered and severed cow head can, but not candles?!!! Must VOTE OUT these Umno scum in 2013!

  7. Hafidz Baharom says:

    Unfortunately for Deborah’s writing there is a huge flaw in the noting that the Police Act and the ISA are unconstitutional.

    They are not.

    • Anonymous Coward says:

      Can you expand on that please? What makes the curtailing of civil liberties constitutional and what can we do about it?

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