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More groups seek justice and accountability in Malaysia

The lack of gender equality, the shoddy treatment of migrant workers and the Baling floods are just three in a litany of concerns


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While likely dates for the next general election are being bandied about, the jockeying for power and control continues with deals within deals being made between the political elite.

Some meetings, agreements, financial arrangements and rewards have been exposed – but only because of ongoing court cases and sometimes by disgruntled politicians.

But this would only seem to be the surface of the rot that has seeped into the running of the country over decades.

Sadly, the real casualty of the mess we are in and continue to witness are the rakyat (people). The loss of integrity and competence of government and in many government institutions and agencies directly affects ordinary people.

While there are many issues affecting the people, I raise just three in this newsletter.

Gender equality rolling backwards?

First, how seriously is the government taking its commitment to gender equality?

It was disappointing to learn that the government has continued with its appeal against a September 2021 High Court decision which recognised that Malaysia’s citizenship laws discriminate against women.

The High Court had ruled that Malaysian mothers are entitled to confer their citizenship on their overseas-born children on an equal basis as Malaysian men.

Note that Malaysia has ratified the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (Cedaw), albeit with a few reservations. It has also made a commitment to the UN’s sustainable development goals, including Goal 5, which aims to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls. To top it all, Malaysia currently sits in the UN Human Rights Council. So we have a lot to live up to.

But then, most astonishing was the latest argument from the Attorney General’s Chambers at the Court of Appeal in June – that the inclusion of “gender” in 2001 as a prohibitory ground of discrimination under Article 8(2) of the Federal Constitution was “impermissible” and thus could not be applied to the citizenship provisions under Article 14 of the Federal Constitution.  

The Attorney General’s Chambers argued that Article 8 forms the basic structure of the Federal Constitution, which cannot be amended.

The legal counsel for the respondents in the Suriani Kempe case has of course disagreed with this argument, stating that “amendments to the Federal Constitution are allowed provided that they are not inconsistent with the basic structure, and the fundamental identity of the Federal Constitution is not altered. Therefore, improvements are allowed, as in the amendment to Article 8(2) in 2001”.

The government seems to be fighting tooth and nail to allow discrimination against women to continue, despite knowing that this issue has caused so much hardship for so many women and their families over the years.

READ MORE:  Foreign workers are human too!

This indicates a deep-seated patriarchal insecurity which has no respect for women and their families, especially the children. Worse is the negating of the very commitment to gender equality and women’s rights which the government itself has spoken about so proudly in the international arena over the years.

The silence from the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development over this issue is sad, but it also speaks volumes about the ability of the ministry to actually stand up for the rights of women and to be taken seriously.

The country will have to wait for the Court of Appeal to come to a decision in August.

Migrant workers: Somehow lesser beings?

Next up is how we treat migrant workers.

Many people were shocked at the home minister’s remark that “anyone can die anywhere” in response to the deaths of 149 Indonesian migrants from five Sabah immigration detention centres over an 18-month period. His comments seemed inappropriate.

The home minister should look into the allegations in a report titled “A report from hell: Conditions of the immigration detention centres In Sabah, Malaysia”, which was released by the Sovereign Migrant Workers Coalition (KBMB).

At the very least, the home minister should insist on an inquiry into the deaths and an investigation into the poor conditions that the report alleges.

This is not the first time Malaysians have heard about the unsanitary conditions in immigration detention centres. Nor is this the first time we have heard about deaths in immigration centres.

Earlier this year, the deputy home minister told the Dewan Rakyat that 208 deaths were recorded in immigration detention depots nationwide from 2018 to February 2022.

There is a worrying flippancy in the home minister’s comments. Surely these deaths and conditions must be unacceptable to a government which holds a seat at the UN Human Rights Council?

How convenient it is to say all sorts of things about migrants or refugees, when these communities have hardly any avenue for redress or reply.

It was also such a shame to see the prime minister trying to justify subsidy cuts by blaming migrants. He was told off by PKR’s youth wing to “jihad against inflation and not migrant workers”.

Yes, there are problems of inadequate housing and undocumented workers but also in the exploitation and trafficking of migrant workers. Surely, we can work towards solving these issues instead of pitting Malaysians against migrant workers.

Our reliance on migrant workers is obvious – including in construction work, in plantations, in the manufacturing sector, in restaurants and even in the care of our family members, especially children and the elderly.

READ MORE:  Study highlights forced labour amongst migrant domestic workers in Southeast Asia - ILO

We must reject a narrative that fuels distrust and disrespect towards migrant workers. And we must call for a halt in any ill treatment of people, including migrant workers in detention and elsewhere.

Baling floods

Finally, let’s take a look at the recent Baling floods, remembering of course the Gunung Jerai floods of last year – both in Kedah.

Baling was hit with “devastating silt and debris laden floods” on the afternoon of 4 July. Over 600 people from 12 villages were affected. Several hundred people had to be evacuated to several relief centres. Tragically, three people died. There is no comeback from this.

The floods also resulted in water cuts affecting thousands of people not just in Kedah but also in Penang. It is unclear how many small businesses were hit by this.

The National Disaster Management Agency and other security agencies, NGOs and volunteers were deployed to help in this disaster and post-flood clean-up work. Several hundred people are involved in the effort.

Financial aid has come from the federal government, and public donations are being made to flood victims.

Just look at the impact of the floods! Did this really have to happen?

The state and federal authorities are reportedly asserting that the floods were a natural disaster coupled with excessive rainfall.

But then, land was cleared for a durian plantation, close to the affected villages. This, incidentally is a state-owned plantation with a joint venture company.

It has now been made clear that the environmental impact assessment, approved by the Department of Environment in 2013, was for a rubber tree plantation. But only in 2021 did the authorities know that durian trees were planted instead. What does this tell us?

The villagers, however, blame the durian plantation for the disaster. Their ‘take’ on the situation is supported by several civil society groups including the Consumer Association Penang, Yayasan Foodbank Malaysia and Lawyers for Environmental Rights. These groups are basically linking the impact of deforestation and land clearing – including leaving land bare and the non-removal of logs and tree stumps, causing soil erosion and reduced water retention levels – to the recent floods.

Yesterday, the environment minister said his ministry’s studies revealed that a burst reservoir built on a durian plantation at Gunung Inas had caused the flood.

But others say an internal inquiry lacks clout and independence. They have called for a royal commission of inquiry instead.

Earlier, the environment minister said there would be a RM203m Baling flood mitigation plan to prevent flash floods from recurring.

Seriously? Now we want to mitigate? What has been happening all this while?

READ MORE:  What lies beneath the disregard for migrant labour laws?

The government already has commitments towards sustainable development. There are government agencies and technical review committees meant to oversee policies and ensure conditions set for sustainable development are followed.

Is there regular monitoring, reporting, evaluating and, where necessary, proper action and interventions taken against violations of the policies in large-scale projects across the country? And if not, why not?

We have knowledge and experience both in East and West Malaysia of the impact of deforestation, logging, mining, the cutting of hill slopes and sand dredging on both the environment and the people. We also have knowledge and experience of the effects of the climate crisis.

Yet we continue to see the plundering and destruction of the environment in the name of development.

Perhaps if we look at who actually benefits from these mega-projects, it will point us toward why and how such decisions are made.

And perhaps if corruption and leakages were halted, there would be better planning and enough funds to hire officers to carry out proper monitoring work.

Gender equality, the treatment of migrant workers and the Baling floods are not the only issues which are cause for concern.

People are struggling with the rising cost of living. Food security is an issue, and yet we see farmers struggling against evictions in Perak. There is a clampdown on spaces for peaceful protests. Deaths in custody continue. And on the list goes.

How long do we want to carry on this way? The government can do better and the people deserve better. The fight for integrity, accountability and competence at all levels of government must continue. The welfare of people should be the priority – not the luxury items of the ruling elite.

It is therefore important that people make their voices heard.

If you share Aliran’s concerns about these and other issues, then please get groups and NGOs you know to endorse Aliran’s People’s Agenda. Support the Reclaim The Nation: People First, Democracy Now campaign.

You can also endorse the Manifesto Rakyat – People’s Voices, People’s Manifesto, which covers a range of issues raised by civil society.

Support all those struggling and fighting against injustices in the country, especially our youth. No matter how dire things may seem, don’t give up.

There is always the possibility of change, but people have to make it happen. We have to push for that change and that means holding our politicians to account now and in the coming general election.

Use your voice now and your ballot in the election.

Prema Devaraj
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
19 July 2022
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.

AGENDA RAKYAT - Lima perkara utama
  1. Tegakkan maruah serta kualiti kehidupan rakyat
  2. Galakkan pembangunan saksama, lestari serta tangani krisis alam sekitar
  3. Raikan kerencaman dan keterangkuman
  4. Selamatkan demokrasi dan angkatkan keluhuran undang-undang
  5. Lawan rasuah dan kronisme
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