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What human rights culture?

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In 1974 a group of people concerned with human rights set up The Human Rights Organisation of Malaysia under the chairmanship of national poet Usman Awang.  The pro-tem committee included such luminaries as Boestamam, V David, Kassim Ahmad, Azmi Khalid, lawyer Gamany, and Professor Rohanna Ariffin. The application for registration, however, was summarily rejected by the government, recalls Cecil Rajendra.

In 1947, the UN Commission on Human Rights submitted a Draft Universal Declaration of Human Rights which was adopted by the General Assembly in Paris on 10 of December 1948, which was later recognised as Human Rights Day.

Less than a decade later, Malaya achieved independence on 31 August 1957.

Unfortunately, the guiding principles of the Proclamation of Independence have been largely forgotten and need constant repeating:

…the time has now arrived when the people of Persekutuan Tanah Melayu will assume the status of a free independent and sovereign nation among the nations of the World …

… and with God’s blessing shall be forever a sovereign, democratic and independent State founded upon the principle of liberty and justice and ever seeking the welfare and happiness of its people.

A catch 

The principle of liberty and justice was, of course, enshrined in the Federal Constitution, but there was a catch …

When we gained Independence in 1957, the Emergency Regulations Ordinance introduced in 1948 by the British Colonial Administration was still in force despite repeated calls from several quarters to have it repealed.

And the Government fully exercised its right of derogation, which allows states to suspend certain human rights in exceptional cases, most often in the case of national emergencies. Therefore, whatever fundamental rights we were granted and guaranteed by the Federal Constitution were simply cancelled by the Government citing that we were still living in a state of emergency.

In his inaugural speech in the Federal Legislative Council in December 1957, D R Seenivasagam, the legendary lawyer, said:

It is well known that the implementation of the Emergency Regulations Ordinance is a serious violation of basic human rights. We were told that some people have been labelled as “subversives”, “pro-communists”, “communists sympathisers” and so on …. but if Chin Peng were to surrender unconditionally to the government, will the Emergency end? I dare say it will not. This is because the policy of the Alliance Government is to ensure the permanent existence of the Emergency.

Nevertheless, on 31 July 1960, the Government finally agreed to repeal the Emergency Regulations Ordinance.

However, the very next day, 1 August 1960, the Government passed the Constitutional Amendment Bill a.k.a the Internal Securty Act (ISA).

Heated debates 

In any study of human rights culture in this country, one could do no better than read the debates (in Hansard) leading up to the passing of the Constitutional Amendment Bill in the Federal Legislative Assembly in 1960.

This is what Lim Kean Siew, a distinguished lawyer and member of the Socialist Front, said:

The Government has publicly announced that the Emergency will end on 31 July. However, a piece of legislation on preventive detention immediately replaces it. This is, in reality, hoodwinking the people; it is only a change in form but not in substance.

“The ruling party has amended articles of the Constitution in detail, so much so that it has become worse and more frightening … We can foresee that once the Constitution is amended, every aspect of people’s freedom of speech and thought will be crushed in various ways…

This is what V David, the legendary trade unionist and MP, also opposing the Amendment Bill, said:

I am strongly against the amendment … The Constitution has very clearly provided for the basic rights and freedoms of our citizens. Once the Constitution is amended, the basic rights enjoyed by our citizens will be undermined.

Then we have MP Tan Kee Gak, Chairman of the Malaya Party:

 … all of a sudden the government has arrogantly announced the Amendment Bill. The government thinks that it has the right to tamper with the basic human rights of the citizens and the Federal Constitution. Obviously, it does not particularly respect our Constitution. It is prepared to tamper with our Constitution in any manner it pleases, when the Constitution is considered to be the most sacred by every citizen … This is tantamount to undermining our basic human rights which are guaranteed by the Federal Constitution.

“Anti-national communist sympathisers”

But inspite of their spirited defence of human rights by these early human rights advocates, their opposition to the constitutional amendment, was brushed aside by Alliance heavyweights like Tun Razak, Datuk Ong Yoke Lin (Health and Welfare Ministr), Datuk Sulaiman (Home Affairs Minister) and Tun Tan Siew Sin (Finance Minister). This is what Datuk Sulaiman said:

… anyone who is against the Bill is supporting the Communist Party. Not only that, it further implies acceptance of the communist ideology.

And even worse came from Tun Tan Siew Sin who weighed in and warned:

Those who are against the Bill are anti-national and therefore Communist sympathisers.

So the Proclamation of Independence, with its promise of liberty and justice for all, far from being a milestone in the evolution of human rights culture in this country, became a mere hiccup in our continuing culture of fear and fright.

Subsequent amendments and legislation such as the Emergency (Public Order & Prevention of Crime) Ordinance 1969, the revised Sedition Act (1965), the Dangerous Drugs (Special Preventive Measures) Act 1985, the revised Restricted Residence Act 1989, the Printing Presses & Publication Act 1984, Societies Act and the Official Secrets Act did nothing to enhance our human rights image or appreciation.

And anyone critical of these laws, which are antithetical to any concept or culture of human rights, was branded anti-national, anti-constitutional, subversive or communist.  From the 1960s right up to the 1990s, human rights activists were, in fact, considered anti-national trouble-makers, subversives and communists.

In today’s terminology, a human rights activist was profiled as a terrorist out to sabotage his country.

And this thinking, this perversion of human rights culture, was prevalent throughout the whole region.

Lee Kuan Yew, Marcos, Suharto, Mahathir etc. all subscribed to the idea that human rights was inimical to economic development, progress and security.

Kuan Yew wrote:

The concept of human rights cannot be applied as a yardstick for the developing nations of Asia  … certain liberties have to be sacrificed for the sake of economic development.

He went on to suggest that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was a product of Western civilisation with little or no relevance for Asia.

Human rights values as enshrined in the UDHR were Western values; what we needed were Eastern values such as those espoused by Confucius.

And because of the special stature and position occupied by Kuan Yew among Asian statesmen, his unmitigated guff on development and human rights was seized upon and swallowed hook, line and sinker by lesser Asian leaders.

Mass arrests and bogeymen

So whatever hope we had for the emergence of a human rights culture was squelched by the continued use of emergency regulations.

For instance in 1958, 56 student activists were detained under the Emergency Ordinance simply because they opposed the colonial education policy – the youngest of those detainees being a mere 16 years old!

In November 1960. while the country slept, police and Special Branch agents carried out mass arrests of more than 20 in Selangor, Negri Sembilan and Perak.

In 1961, over 50 student activists and Socialist Front members were arrested. Some were charged in court while the rest sent to the Batu Gajah Detention Centre. In 1962, over 50 people were detained all over the country.

On 2 February 1963, Singapore kicked off with mass arrests under its notorious “Operation Cold Store”. Among those detained were Utusan Melayu editor Said Zahari,  Lim Chin Siong, Dr. Lim Hock Slew and Dr. Poh Su Kai.

And, as has been the pattern ever since, what Singapore does today, Malaysia does tomorrow. (cf. Operation Lalang)

So, on 13 February 1963, Ahmad Boestamam became the first MP to be detained. That year also saw the mass arrests of many Malay leftists who opposed the formation of Malaysia.

In 1965, following the call by the Socialist Front to mark the second anniversary of the arrest of Boestamam as the “Struggle for Human Rights Day”, the Government detained several top leaders of the Socialist Front and its component parties; they also detained over 250 demonstrators and declared a state of Emergency over a part of Kuala Lumpur. The detainees included the famed novelist, Pak Sako.

It was as if the Proclamation of Independence and the promise of liberty and justice had never happened. For, with the detention of Pak Sako and Ahmad Boestamam, newly independent Malaya was seen to make a complete U-turn back to the Emergency of 1948 when both Boestamam and Pak Sako were arrested by the British colonial authorities. And this pattern of arrests, detentions without trial, ban on peaceful public rallies, suppression of trade unions and opposition parties, this flouting of fundamental liberties continued unabated … .

First with the communist bogey, then with the Indonesian Konfrontasi, followed by the 1969 Emergency (which is still in place!), then again the communist bogey, right up to Memali, Operation Lalang and the new millennium, with the so-called War on Terrorism.

In the name of security, the Government also stopped elections to local councils in the mid 1960s. We are all aware of the continuing saga of non-transparency and non-accountability affecting appointed Councils up till today.

So what culture of human rights are we talking about?

A slight shift

Human rights has been a subversive, if not abusive, epithet right up till very recent times. 1t was only in the late 1990s with the appointment of Tan Sri Musa Hitam as Chair of the UN Commission for Human Rights and the subsequent setting up of SUHAKAM, that there has been a slight shift in attitudes – both government and public.

I pause here to remind you that in 1974 a group of people concerned with human rights set up The Human Rights Organisation of Malaysia under the chairmanship of national poet Usman Awang.  The pro-tem committee included such luminaries as Boestamam, V David, Kassim Ahmad, Azmi Khalid, lawyer Gamany, and Professor Rohanna Ariffin. The application for registration, however, was summarily rejected by the government of Tun  Hussein Onn.

Fourteen years later, on the 40th anniversary of the UDHR (10 December 1988), Tunku Abdul Rahman, our first Prime Minister, declared the formation of the National Human Rights Society (HAKAM). This was in the aftermath of Operation Lalang in 1987and May Day for Justice in 1988
But it would take three long years before its application for registration was approved in spite of the fact that the application was submitted by HAKAM’s second chairman, none other than the same Tun Hussein Onn!

It is also important to note that, since the early 1960s with the likes of D R Seenivasagam, Lim Kean Siew, Tan Phock Hin, R. Ramani, Karam Singh and Raja Aziz Addruse, the Malaysian Bar has been in the forefront of the battle for human rights in this country.

And, for our pains we have been threatened, abused, and castigated; our members charged for unlawful assembly and our leaders cited for contempt and sedition ,and detained! As late as 1996, the then Attorney General threatened to clip our wings for failing to understand the “sensitive issues” facing the Government and acting like an opposition party by highlighting human rights issues.

And, so, in 2005/2006 with the trampling of a peaceful religious community and the wanton destruction of their private property by the authorities in the Ayah Pin case, by the denial of a legal forum in the Moorthy case, by the absolute disregard for human dignity by the police in the nude-squats incident and the head-shaving of mahjong players, how can we even begin to talk of a culture of human rights in Malaysia.

Ask me again in 10  years time…

Cecil Rajendra is the president of human rights group HAKAM. This is an edited extract of a paper presented at the Suhakam forum on “Culture of Human Rights in Malaysia” in February 2006.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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