In the past, lawyers were largely at the forefront of such criticisms. However, with the information age and globalisation, there is a rising tide of awareness among the public in Malaysia. It is heartening to see the public join in the outcry against injustice and unjust laws. It is stimulating to read arguments for and against a viewpoint. We should never take the Malaysian public for granted, or underestimate their ability to reason and debate sensibly.
Sound and logical arguments
I must disclose my interest. I am an executive committee member of the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO), a JAG member. I was not present at the 1 Oct press conference because I was overseas. Nevertheless, I fully endorse JAG’s stand in relation to the Kartika caning. It was taken after due consideration of all legal and human rights factors, and this basis is set out in full in the JAG memorandum of 25 Aug.
Those convinced of these arguments will continue to support them until and unless they are persuaded otherwise, not by threats, but by sound and logical arguments. Those who lodge police reports clearly aim to intimidate and suppress views that do not accord with theirs. In today’s Malaysia, that is no longer acceptable. Forcibly shutting down discussion does a disservice to one’s cause. It gives an impression of close-mindedness, and an inability to argue a case on principle or merit.
We should also deal with the all-too-familiar statements that “these are God’s laws you are questioning” and “you are non-Muslim, why are you interfering?”. Firstly, no one is questioning God’s laws. What is sought is a discussion of the human interpretation of these laws. It appears that even each Syariah State Enactment differs. So where is the seditious tendency in asking for these laws to be looked at and reviewed?
The other point must also be confronted. I would ask in turn what the role of society at large is, in the face of what they perceive to be an injustice, regardless of the religious underpinnings. Recently in Aceh, laws were proposed calling for death by stoning as a punishment for adultery, and flogging for other offences. The Human Rights Watch (HRW) has condemned these laws as constituting torture. It would be wholly inappropriate to say that the HRW should not interfere because they may not understand Islamic law.
In the case of Kartika’s caning, there was international condemnation apart from public outcry. In this day and age, what anyone does in any part of the world will be open to comment and scrutiny. We should just get used to it.
There is a more compelling response. No one can, nor should they ever be permitted to, shield from scrutiny any action that imposes upon the dignity and physical and mental well-being of another. We fight the Internal Security Act together, even if most of us are unlikely to be subjected to that legislation. We fight it on principle alone, because we do not believe that any of our brothers and sisters should be subjected to it.
To me it is very clear. If we do not speak up for those who are afraid, reluctant or weak in the face of what we see as unfair treatment, then we betray our covenant to each other as a society of civilised peoples.
Few politicians from either side of the divide have shown the courage to confront issues that touch upon religion. To their credit, PAS has apparently said it is prepared to hold a dialogue with JAG on the Kartika caning. We should take them up on this offer. Surely this is a preferred option to threats and intimidation.
In his book The Idea of Justice, Amartya Sen, Noble Prize winner in Economics, talks about the absence of a backlash on the Indian Muslim population in India after the November 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks. He attributes this largely to “the public discussion that followed the attacks, to which both Muslims and non-Muslims contributed richly.” A valuable lesson is to be learnt from this.
We must fight the urge to constantly shut down discussion. We must appreciate that the world is changing, and that there is a clamour for dialogue. Malaysia in all its multiethnic glory is well placed to set an example for the rest of the world in promoting peace and understanding, where people do not merely “tolerate” each other.
We must leave a legacy of choosing the path of openness and discussion rather than force and suppression when faced with a difficult task. Let this be the start of our golden age of discourse. Let us all talk to one another. More importantly, let us listen.
Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan
16 Oct 2009