A TRULY civilised society can only come about if the citizenry understand that a few things must exist before that can happen.
Firstly, we must be prepared to behave like mature adults and not like children. This means, among others, a readiness to take responsibility for our actions and to know that how we behave is how society is being moulded. The kind of society that we live in reflects our collective maturity levels.
Can you imagine how pathetic a society is when its adults are not allowed to make many basic and important decisions on their own behalf because they are hindered by law or societal norms?
Secondly, it is fortunate that Part II of our Constitution recognises some of this basic decision-making and needs and protects fundamental liberties such as freedom of speech and rights to property. However, citizens cannot be complacent that the mere provision of these rights will guarantee our enjoyment of them. We have to be consistently vigilant that our inherent freedom to live is not oppressed by politicians. We have to be critical.
There is forever a tug of war over fundamental liberties. There is always that force, legitimate or otherwise, that would constantly want to water down or even deny our fundamental liberties.
An extreme example where your right of movement is curtailed is if you are sentenced to imprisonment by a criminal court. Hence, there are legitimate and necessary instances where the Constitution itself provides that these liberties may be curtailed. Which brings us to my third point and a question: Who decides when the law can curtail these guaranteed fundamental Constitutional rights?
In our system of governance, we have the three main branches of government, ie the executive, legislature and judiciary. This is supposedly our system of checks and balances so that citizens are not oppressed by the powerful government. It is important to note that we are not saying that a government is inherently oppressive. Only those seriously lacking in grey matter will say that. We are only saying that power has the tendency to corrupt and become oppressive and, hence, we try to devise a system that would minimise or prevent that from occurring – that would maintain a true and not merely cosmetic separation of powers.
The lawmaking body, Parliament, is made up of politicians who, unfortunately, may try to pass laws that would strengthen and increase their political powers. Any law that vests greater power in the hands of governments and ministers without any checks and balances will increase their political power.
The repealed Internal Security Act (ISA), for example, had quelled citizens’ thoughts, discussions and deliberations on many matters of national interest for decades. I would argue that the ISA has been largely responsible for hindering the growth of national maturity and intellectual levels in the country. People were just afraid to discuss many things openly.
Back to the question of who decides which law can curtail Constitutional rights – it is the judiciary. Therefore, Parliament can make any laws it wants, but it is the judges who decide whether the law passed is Constitutional or not because they are the interpreters of the law.
Judges, with respect, are also human beings and probably also unconsciously subjected to the overall “mood, maturity and intellectual climate” in the country. This is why the law develops as the quality of the citizenry itself develops. Having said that, the judiciary still remains the last bastion of justice and citizens have to ensure that courageous, honest, diligent, compassionate, objective-minded and clever judges sit in the courts and support them.
Fourthly, I believe many citizens are still not aware of the lawmaking role of members of Parliament and state assemblies. And Muslims are equally not aware that syariah laws are passed by state assemblies.
Citizens must understand that every single piece of legislation has an effect on them and most legislation impinges on our rights in some way. If it is seen in this way, the questions that every constituent must ask their MPs is: How is this new law going to affect me? Why is the old law that is affecting me negatively still not repealed?
This is where the role of civil society and the media is important. It may be difficult for an individual to hold an MP accountable, but it will be easier for, say, an NGO to meet with an MP. The media must assist in highlighting the event as an effort to educate society on the process of democracy.
Fifth, Malaysians must do all they can to educate the MPs that they are elected to office to ensure that citizens’ lives made easier. That they are under duty to pass laws that will facilitate and not obstruct our lives in all key aspects.
Citizens must let the leaders know that when we give them control over our lives, it is not so that they can be powerful but so they are useful to the nation in general. However, if we continue to behave like naïve children or remain apathetic, then we will give birth to oppressive leaders who will destroy this beautiful nation in the long run.
Let us not abdicate our responsibility as a citizen, an adult and a human being.
Senior lawyer Datuk Seri Jahaberdeen Mohamed Yunoos is the founder and chairman of Yayasan Rapera, an NGO that promotes community-based learning activities and compassionate thinking among Malaysians. The views expressed here are entirely his own.