A lot more has to be done to improve human rights in our country. Malaysians need to band together to subdue undemocratic forces in a democratic way.
THE Pakatan Harapan government came to power on the promise to improve the human rights situation in the country. Fifteen months after GE14, how does the scorecard read? Commenting objectively on the state of human rights is never easy because any fair evaluation requires a historian’s perspective, a lawyer’s acumen, a politician’s insight, a philosopher’s vision and the executive’s experience.
There is also the definitional problem of delineating the expanding and contested territory of human rights. Human rights are not confined to civil and political liberties but also encompass unenumerated, socio-economic, developmental rights like food, water, shelter, health, roads, employment, minimum wages, a clean environment and education. Poverty alleviation is an important aspect of the human rights quest.
In evaluating the government’s record of 15 months, it is also necessary to understand the obstacles and minefields in the path of progress.
Electoral system: The Bill to reduce voting age from 21 to 18, permit automatic registration and lower the age for candidature from 21 to 18, has passed the Dewan Rakyat. This will enfranchise 7.8 million more citizens by 2023. The Election Commission of the Najib era has been reconstituted with new members of independence and integrity.
Speech: Freedom is in the air. The media has been unshackled. The right of students to participate in politics while on campus has been restored. The Fake News Act was sought to be repealed but the Bill failed in the Dewan Negara. The Attorney General’s Office dropped politically motivated sedition charges against a number of activists.
Regrettably, the Sedition Act and the Official Secrets Act remain in force. Another sad development is that “hate speech” has become widespread and insufficient action is being taken to counter it.
Personal liberty: Malaysia continues to detain individuals without trial under preventive detention laws like the Prevention of Crime Act and the Prevention of Terrorism Act, which give government-appointed boards the authority to impose detention without trial for up to two years.
Assembly: The Peaceful Assembly Act is being liberalised. Mass demonstrations against Icerd (International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination) and the Rome Statute went ahead without incidence or police interference.
Religion: The repression and demonisation of Muslim minorities like the syiah continue. This is despite a High Court ruling that members of the Ahmadiyya community, which has been declared “deviant” in Malaysia, cannot be charged with offences under Syariah laws.
Repressive laws: The promise to do away with repressive laws like the Sedition Act, Printing Presses and Publications Act, National Security Council Act, Official Secrets Act and some sections of the Communications and Multimedia Act has not materialised. Neither the death penalty nor the mandatory aspects of this punishment have been abolished.
The judiciary: The judicial winter of the 1980s seems to be thawing. Some sterling appointments to leadership roles in the civil judiciary have ushered in a new jurisprudence. The decision in Indira Gandhi (2018) forbids the unilateral conversion by one parent of a child to another religion. In Alma Nudo (2019), a drug law with a double presumption of guilt was judicially censured as disproportionate and therefore unconstitutional.
The Syariah judiciary has also seen many good appointments. There are now two female Syariah High Court judges and a distinguished Syariah judge has been appointed to head the Syariah Judiciary Department.
Criminal justice: The police force has a new IGP with a good reputation. A specialised commission on complaints against the police, though watered down considerably, is in the offing. However, nothing adequate has been done to seriously investigate the Suhakam report that implicates the police in the enforced disappearances of Amri Che Mat and Pastor Raymond Koh. Suhakam also reports that there has been an average of 17 deaths in police custody annually for the past 15 years. Out of 255 deaths, 194 were reported to be health-related.
Women: Women have taken great strides towards equality and dignity. But more needs to be done to protect females in such matters as child marriage, polygamy, extra-judicial divorce, inheritance and female circumcision. In many areas, formal equality has not produced functional parity either in the public or private sectors. Prejudices as old as time stand in the way.
For other vulnerable groups like people with disabilities, the aged and the Orang Asli, Band-Aid solutions are offered for problems of massive magnitude. Legal and illegal logging, and development projects devastate the lives of Orang Asli and natives. Our public healthcare system for the poor was one of the best in the world but we are regressing.
Economic welfare: On the positive side, one can say that despite the one-trillion ringgit debt and the looting of public funds by the political and administrative elite of the previous government, the economy did not collapse. We even managed to abolish some tolls and taxes. However, due to economic constraints, some schemes to help smallholders and fishermen were dismantled. The depressed prices for agricultural commodities, our low-wage economy, and our fiscal limitations to expanding the safety net for the poor, prevent us from addressing poverty and achieving social justice.
International law: The government withdrew its forces from the genocidal operations in Yemen. It has taken a critical stand on human rights violations in Myanmar. It sought to accede to international treaties like Icerd and the Rome Statute but backed out due to strong opposition from some MalayMuslim groups. The desirability of signing many other human rights treaties like the 1951 Refugee Convention remains unaddressed.
No Malaysians have been held responsible for their role in the deaths of over 100 ethnic Rohingya trafficking victims whose bodies were found in 2015 in remote jungle camps on the Thai-Malaysian border.
In sum, the Pakatan government has a mixed track record on human rights. This is partly because old power dynamics remain alive. Some elements in the police, the Syariah establishment, the civil service and other parts of the ruling elite often fail to show respect for the letter and spirit of the Federal Constitution or the results of adjudicated civil court cases.
The Selangor government’s attempt to reintroduce a unilateral conversion Bill despite the unanimous Federal Court decision in the Indira Gandhi case is a case in point.
In a democracy, change takes time. Democracy’s dilemma is that it has to deal with undemocratic forces in a democratic way!
Nevertheless, the present government needs a firmer conviction to do what is right even if that is not popular.
On our part, we the citizens need to set up alliances of human rights groups to counter the power of the deep state that seeks to maintain the status quo. Each of us has a duty to stand up and be counted.
Emeritus Prof Shad Saleem Faruqi is Tunku Abdul Rahman Professor at Universiti Malaya’s law faculty and holder of the Tun Hussein Chair at the Institute of Strategic and International Studies Malaysia. The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.