As we step into 2016, let us hope for an atmosphere of openness in Malaysia.
TODAY we go through the closing hours of the year. It is a time to reminisce on the events of 2015 and to contemplate the days ahead.
Our country is a Constitutional monarchy, but is otherwise a democracy governed by the Federal Constitution.
Malaysia is made up of different and diverse races — although the demographics are changing somewhat — and the Constitution declares that it is the supreme law of the land.
Within its framework, it provides for Islam to be the religion of the country, freedom to profess other religions by others, and fundamental liberties for citizens.
And then there are special privileges for the Malays and later by extension, for the Bumiputeras. This creates a sense of a divide because in some aspects, we are one country with perhaps two systems. However, this has been accepted by the people and the provisions are all well entrenched in the Constitution and are duly implemented.
There are also provisions on the position of the Rulers, Malay as the official language, and citizenship. With very rare exceptions, the people revere the Yang di-Pertuan Agong and the Sultans, and laws are in place to ensure that certain subjects deemed sensitive are not even touched upon.
People of different races, religions and cultures have lived in this country peacefully and harmoniously. There has been the rare occasion when the country saw a black day but the people have moved on.
The law only provides the framework within which the country operates and the life of the people is regulated.
Theoretically, the people decide, but in reality, the power to make laws is in the hands of the legislators.
We justifiably feel proud of the wonderful infrastructure and facilities that wow the foreign visitors who land at the Kuala Lumpur International Airport and find their transfer from there to the city a breeze. However, what lies ahead for the ordinary individual?
We get a wakeup call when we venture outside the country. A burger that costs RM3 at a roadside stall back home could cost £3 in an ordinary outlet in London. That is equivalent to RM18 or more!
It was not always like this. Just after Malaysia and Singapore separated, a Malaysian who went to Singapore with RM1,000 in his pocket ended up with at least S$1,100. Today he would be lucky if he could get S$0.40 for a ringgit.
And it is not only that. On the social front, we have become racially and religiously polarised.
When I was growing up, my parents did not have to worry when I visited my Malay neighbours for Hari Raya. If I was helping myself to the food and approached the dish containing beef, my host would rush to stop me, mindful that I am not allowed to eat beef. On our part, we made sure food offered to our Malay guests was halal.
This was in my hometown, Alor Setar. My school was just across the Sikh temple. Whenever there were three-day prayers in the temple, which Sikhs often conduct from time to time, my Malay friends would head to the temple for tea and chapattis without the slightest hesitation.
For the benefit of those who may not know, only vegetarian food is served and can be consumed in a Sikh temple.
Over the years, the situation has changed. Though the appropriate and relevant laws are in place, laws alone are not enough. They must be implemented in the proper way without fear or favour. It cannot be said that this has been so in all cases.
On a different note, the decision to replace some repressive laws was refreshing. Openness and transparency is necessary to ensure that wrong decisions are not made.
Incorporating confidentiality clauses into Government contracts (which means public funds are involved), can only lead to the suspicion that there is something to hide. It is often the case that a person does not hide good deeds.
Of course, there cannot be absolute freedom to do and say what one wishes. But good laws must also be clear and unambiguous, so that they can be properly and correctly implemented.
Introduced around three years ago, Section 124B of the Penal Code reads: “Whoever, by any means, directly or indirectly, commits an activity detrimental to parliamentary democracy shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 20 years.”
I really cannot make out what such an activity would involve. Thus, when the occasion arises, the task of determining it will fall on the shoulders of the judge.
I am reminded of a news article about China using an old law on “picking quarrels” and “provoking trouble”. It has been extended from the physical realm to Internet speech.
“The legal definition of ‘picking quarrels’ in China was expanded in 2013 by the nation’s top legal bodies, the Supreme People’s Court and the Supreme People’s Procuratorate, to encompass online behavior,” the New York Times reported in July this year.
“The court said the charge could apply to anyone using information networks to ‘berate or intimidate others’ and spread false information. First-time offenders can be sentenced up to five years in prison.”
Clearly, we are not alone in creating and relying on vague laws, if that is of comfort to anyone.
It all depends on our leaders and those that we elect as to whether they want to create an atmosphere of intimidation or openness.
On this note, I thank the readers who have expressed their appreciation for this column over the year, and I ask all readers to put aside apprehension and look forward with hope to the year ahead.
Any comments or suggestions for points of discussion can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.
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