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.
Which makes the lodging of the police reports against the Joint Action Group for Gender Equality (JAG) on the Kartika caning issue so disappointing.
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
â€œCall thou to the way of the thy Lord with wisdom and good admonition, and dispute with them in the better way.â€ (16:125).
â€œLet him who will, believe, let him who will, reject (faith).â€ (18: 29).
â€œSay: O unbelievers, I worship not what you worship and you are not worshiping what I worship nor am I worshiping what you have worshipped, neither are you worshiping what I worship. To you your religion and to me my religion.” (The Quran, 109:1-6)
Gopal Raj Kumar says
In order to fairly and convincingly demand openness from our adversaries we ought to ourselves be practitioners of openness.
The Malaysian Bar of which Ms Sreenivasan was once chair denied and continue to deny access to open discussion by restricting participation on the Malaysian bar website to registered Malaysian lawyers. A law unto themselves. A den of incompetence and practitioners of self regulation meaning no other opinion can be acceptable. A contradiction in terms when viewed in context of their creed.
To the issue of the Kartika whipping (caning). Once more the issue of distorted priorities and western-influenced trendiness and values in determing what rights are raises its ugly head in Ambiga for all to see.
A shallow argument she does present on the Kartika case. If JAG had any credibility, the issue of Kartika would not even deserve a mention where human rights is concerned.
When one considers the case of humans (of both genders) on death row in the many prisons of Malaysia for the offence of possession (trafficking when it reaches the threshold quantity) of narcotics, the sanctimonious character of her argument turns into a falsehood.
The sanctity of human life knows no gender distinction or boundaries. Yet the death penalty is never argued as vociferously by JAG or Human Rights Watch except at cursory levels in passing.
The degree of ignorance over alcohol and its damaging effects on society is often misunderstood by the Ambigas of this world which eventually undermines their arguments.
Alcohol is a scourge on most western-type societies and not necessarily restricted to democracies alone. To exact exemplary punishment on its most vulnerable (women) who are the target of advertising and marketing everywhere by tobacco and alcohol manufacturers is not necessarily a bad thing to do. It has at least now become topical. That’s of itself a victory. The punishment to Kartika may well serve as a deterrent in the future.
To decide because there has been international condemnation (some sort of benchmark of what’s right in Ambiga’s view), Malaysia ought not to inflict such punitive sanctions against women in future is absurd. Even if it’s for the offence of serving a beer.
It is through the attractive form of a woman (the example of Eve provides a lesson in the Bible, the Torah and the Quran alike) that such a poison and a scourge like alcohol, cigarettes, dope and other forms of addiction finds their way into the lives of us all. Remember that at one time cocaine, heroin, morphine and opium were all legal recreational drugs much like alcohol in the west. Women were as objects used to advance its wider use.
The degrees and varieties of punishment meted out to offenders under law are meant to be relevant to their individual circumstances, the cultural impact (social impact) of their offences and the extent to which the punishment acts as a deterrent to others.
Drinking is a scourge on western societies as well. However very few western politicians are willing to “bell that cat” for the economic impact the knowledge of drinking addiction could have on industry.
For Malaysia to use traditional or religious courts to exact exemplary justice to curb what is clearly a menace at any level, is a brave albeit unconventional step to take in fighting this menace.
Concentrate on the preservation of life first Ambiga. That’s more important than gender equality by western standards. Not every woman who covers her head does so out of fear.
Where a woman (or a man) finds her dignity in covering her head and her face in acceptance of the truth of her beliefs however ridiculous you or I may perceive it to be, we ought to protect that right and respect that belief behind her choice. So too must it be with courts and government. Unless of course one accepts the Malaysian Bar’s standards of what’s right and what’s wrong and what should be debated and what should not.
Gopal Raj Kumar
Hi there Ambiga, I can’t find a Bahasa Kebangsaan version of your letter…Please let me know if it’s available. I applaud your call for open dialogue and discussion – but if you want to engage with the Muslim local authorities you must be communicate with them in the national language. Or better still if you can speak Arabic as all the science of Islamic laws all are derived from texts in the Arabic language. Thanks!
Azizi Khan says
“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. ”
It is more than this. Forcing people not to question syariah law implementations has nothing to do with questioning religion. It’s more about holding on to the power to use archaic laws to manipulate the masses. A typical example of this is the ISA. Using syariah laws is more about Umno flexing its religious muscles, [to show it is] more Islamic than PAS.
Why can’t anyone “question” religion? Surely even our best ulamak understand that one of the foundations of Islam is knowledge â€” what is wrong in educating the masses? Or is it that they are incapable of coming up with answers, and are afraid that their limitations would be exposed to the public?
Islam is one of the topics [being discussed by] people all around the world. Whether you explicitly forbid people or not, people will still discuss it, especially when there could be the possibility of violation of the rights of non-Muslims. In Malaysia, it seems every opportunity seems to be taken to push Islamic principles forward with disregard for the multi-ethnic community.
The problem is, all this Islamisation seems to go against the foundation of Islam, which is to fight corruption, racism, etc. Everywhere you go, we are led to believe that being Malay is the same as being a Muslim, which is an outright fallacy. Islamic principles are universal; being a Malay is not.
So what exactly are we trying to portray with “Islamic-based policies”? That we can have different rules for different states in Malaysia? That laws and rules can be made up that differ from Islamic law? That we are so enthusiastic about pushing ahead with Islamic principles that we don’t care about the principles themselves? That we will still hold on to laws in Islam that are considered outdated? If these laws are not outdated, can someone please tell me where I can legally buy female slaves? Islam does not forbid it, so it is within my rights to purchase them. Something to think about, isn’t it?
The blanket ban on anyone talking about Islam is just a sham by the powers-that-be to protect themselves from shady power-mongering. If they ever agreed on civilised discussion, their blatant hypocrisy would be known to all.
Well said and well written, Azizi Khan.
There is hope for Malaysia yet.
Gopal Raj Kumar says
“Often sound advice turns out to be totally wrong. Sometimes things turn out in such a way that only fools would predict. Which is why fools too have their place in analysis and debate.”
If one takes on the platitudes of Ambiga one ends up with the contradictions of this woman which she herself is oblivious to and which makes her arguments farcical and a mockery of the positions she holds.
Ambiga needless to say and by virtue of her profession has an academic orientation. But her arguments reveal something more sinister. Does she have an education to match her academic stature?
As to the references on Syariah law and debate or the absence of it by those who deny an opportunity to debate the following may be instructive;
“The irrationality of a subject is no argument against is existence, rather a condition of it.” (Friedrich Nitszche or in reality Manu from ancient Indian literature).
At least Nitszche had the decency to acknowledge his sources even if not so published initially. That was Europe then.
Many religious and legal so-called scholars bring ridicule and disrepute to their causes by not understanding their own arguments like Ambiga demonstrates.
Syariah is like any other religious doctrine. It is based on faith, not rationality. Once you introduce rationality into religion, all hell breaks loose.
Gopal Raj Kumar