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(© MyConstitution / Facebook)PERAK. Party-hopping. Frogs. Who by now doesn’t know about the Perak constitutional crisis. Awareness has also been stirred about the right to freedom of association and the rights of voters to choose based on a candidate’s party.
Federal-state relations are receiving prominence now that the opposition controls at least four states. Federal funding for these states is an issue, and so is competition between state authority and federal interests as seen in the restructuring of Selangor’s water industry.
Malaysians have long been grappling with constitutional problems, even if many don’t recognise them as such. Some think that since the 1988 judicial crisis, it’s been downhill ever since. But only now, in the post-March 2008 era and with the resulting political turmoil, does there seem to be a greater hunger for knowledge about the constitution.
So there couldn’t be a better time than now for the Bar Council to launch its MyConstitution or PerlembagaanKu campaign. The council’s Constitutional Law Committee (ConstiLC) is embarking on a two-year plan to help Malaysians know the Federal Constitution through a simplified version of key aspects in the document.
(© MyConstitution / Facebook)With greater access to information on the internet, more Malaysians are making the connection between everyday issues and the federal constitution, Maha Balakrishnan, the ConstiLC’s co-deputy chairperson, tells The Nut Graph.
The 2008 general election, too, was pivotal in empowering people to speak up and in wanting to know more about their rights. Where past constitutional problems like the judicial crisis were thought to be above the realm of the average Malaysian, issues are now lively debated through online forums or blogs.
There is no doubt that constitutional issues comes alive whenever police clamp down on peaceful assemblies and candle light vigils, and when they arrest lawyers intending to see clients in the lock-up.
And constitutional issues don’t just confront those on the political frontline but catches others unawares, too. Marina Undau and others from Sarawak, despite being top scorers, can’t get into a matriculation programme because their mixed parentage doesn’t qualify them as bumiputeras according to the federal constitution’s definition.
(© MyConstitution / Facebook)
Still, despite awareness of these issues, public knowledge of the constitution is largely “issue-based and piecemeal”, adds ConstiLC co-deputy chairperson Syahredzan Johan.
“We don’t have a complete overview of the constitution and how it affects us,” he tells The Nut Graph in an e-mail interview.
Maha adds, “There is very little understanding or knowledge of how all the different parts [of the constitution] fit together as a whole to structure and regulate government and the relationship between citizen and state.”
The big picture
The ConstiLC hopes to repair this disconnect through the campaign. A series of nine booklets called the “Rakyat Guides” on different constitutional themes will be issued over a two-year period.
The nine themes are:
Introduction to the supremacy of the constitution;
Institutions established by the constitution and the separation of powers;
Citizenship and fundamental liberties;
Elections and democracy;
Sabah and Sarawak.
The first booklet on What is the Federal Constitution? will be launched today, 13 Nov 2009. The series is geared for those aged between 15 to 35. Copies are being distributed in private colleges and hopefully, in schools next year if the Education Ministry agrees.
“A lot of what we think we know about the constitution is derived from what politicians or certain quarters with vested interests tell us. This should not be. If we continue to base our knowledge of the constitution on what other people tell us, we leave ourselves open to misinterpreting or misunderstanding the provisions,” says Syahredzan.
One constitution, different interpretations
One of the Perak crisis protests, February 2009
Nothing is more illustrative of this, at the moment, than the Perak crisis. Both sides to the dispute profess constitutionalism and rule of law.
But there are other ongoing misconceptions about the constitution, such as the confusion between the “special position” of Malay Malaysians and the natives of Sabah and Sarawak with that of the New Economic Policy. Syahredzan points out the first is a constitutional provision, while the second is a government policy.
“Challenging or asking for a review of the NEP is not tantamount to challenging the constitution,” he notes.
Another misconception is about the constitution’s supremacy. Maha feels that it is treated like another piece of legislation “subservient to the will of Parliament”.
“There’s a lack of appreciation of its supremacy […] probably because our constitution has been amended so many times!” she says.
Indeed, just how supreme is the constitution, when the principle of separation of powers was flouted in the 7 May 2009 Perak legislative assembly sitting by police who physically removed and detained Speaker V Sivakumar.
Edmund BonAnd it would seem that different judges understand the constitution’s supremacy differently. One court upholds the Parliament Speaker’s decision to suspend DAP Member of Parliament Gobind Singh Deo from entering the House, but then another rules that Sivakumar did not have the power to suspend Barisan Nasional Menteri Besar Datuk Seri Dr Zambry Abdul Kadir and six executive councillors.
However, what the MyConstitution aims to do is to “tell it as it is”.
“The ConstiLC does not intend, by the campaign, to load our messages and stories about the constitution with our own interpretations,” stresses committee chairperson Edmund Bon.
The campaign’s purpose is to simplify the constitution so that people understand it, and with that knowledge, to decide for themselves on issues instead of relying on “experts” or politicians to interpret it for them.
Power to the people
In the long-run, it is hoped that people will understand enough to take ownership of future constitutional amendments. Making recommendations for constitutional reform is one of the ConstiLC’s roles, too.
“Despite the constitution having been amended many times willy-nilly, any amendment must be in the best interests of the rakyat. We have lost sight of this and many amendments have eroded the rakyat’s rights. MPs (Members of Parliament) have decided for the rakyat without true support for the amendments,” says Bon.
The campaign’s value may not be realised until many years later, and it hinges on people wanting to have a say about their rights. Towards that end, the first Rakyat Guides booklet will be launched together with the campaign website today. The public can also join the campaign online via Facebook.
The ConstiLC holding a meeting (© MyConstitution / Facebook)
The ConstiLC has the government’s ear, with verbal support from Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department in charge of law Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz, and his deputy Datuk Liew Vui Keong who will attend the launch.
Other plans in the campaign are the airing of public service announcements, which are to be aired on RTM, pending government approval. In the works is also a proposal that includes working with the Education Ministry and the Malaysian Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) to develop a syllabus on constitutional law starting from Standard One.
“It’s not enough for students to recite the Rukunegara. We should be teaching young kids, in simple terms, what the constitution means and says,” Bon notes.
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