Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Human Rights In Malaysia - A Mixed Bag.

It would not be wrong to say that Malaysia's 'report card' on human rights is around the C+ grade. It somehow progresses in certain fronts in fits and starts only to backtrack in other areas. What political compulsions determine these erratic decisions I cannot say for sure but it does put the country in a bad light. It is as if the government is telling the world, "listen, we believe in human rights just as you do but what that means to you may differ from our interpretation. We shall follow what we think is our definition of human rights and you had better accept it, for it doesn't matter to us what your opinion is."

This is exactly what our human rights record is - doing what we think is appropriate and to hell with the world. No wonder we have not ratified several instruments pertaining to human rights in the United Nations. Signing those would have put the screws on the government to comply.

Popular opinion seems to be that things are much better on the human rights front now than during the Mahathir years. The present government appointed A Royal Commission to examine police abuse and publicized the findings instead of stamping it 'Official Secret'. However of the 125 recommendations made how many have actually been implemented remains a mystery. Prior to that several prominent figures were charged with corruption; something unheard of under Dr. Mahathir. Several Malaysians were also prosecuted for abusing foreign maids leading to sleepless nights for those ugly Malaysians for whom cruelty to domestic helpers is a pastime.

However, much of the baggage of the more than two decades of 'benign' repression still remains in practice and in the statute books. The meanest culprit on the block is the notorious Internal Security Act, that all encompassing, 'one shoe fits everyone' solution for those who threaten national security and public order and other 'irritants' who get on the wrong side of the government. Of course after 911 our ISA proponents are overjoyed - 'even the Mat Sallehs who talk so much about human rights have it so why not us' they ask with unconcealed glee. Obviously 'two wrongs don't make a right' has no equivalent local translation. If there is insufficient evidence to prosecute someone, hey presto!, bring out the big bad ISA and we all can rest easy tomorrow or at least for the next six months. Even then if the prosecution has still not risen from it's slumber, no problem lah, get the minister of internal security to autograph an official paper and our suspected traitor or criminal gets to sleep in the slammer for another two years; and that can be renewed indefinitely!

Over the years there has been a lot of disquiet especially among the non-Muslims about what they perceive as increasingly restrictive practices and actions by the government from the Federal to the States and even the local authorities. They opine that their human rights are not being respected or taken into consideration when the powers that be enact or implement new rules and regulations or how they interpret these with bias. The actions of the government and it's agencies in several cases involving new converts, marital disputes where one party is Muslim as well as the reluctance and inertia displayed by the courts in dispensing justice has more than worried even calm and rational Malaysians of all religious persuasions.

Equally distressing is the inaction of the authorities, like in the recent Article 11 forum fiasco and the mob attack on the Ayah Pin, Sky Kingdom religious sect in Terengganu state. A number of incidences which are clearly examples of moral policing contrary to established law has been inexplicably tolerated by the government and recently backed by a court judgment. Are we sowing the seeds of a barren garden of intolerance and religious extremism or is this merely the harbinger of more horrors to come?

Let it be made clear that any democratically elected government which claims legitimacy on the principle of first past the post and chosen by universal suffrage owes a responsibility to all the people all the time. They should not be seen as partial to some, or worse cruel to others.

To the Prime Minister I would like to say, Pak Lah we trusted you, believed in you and therefore overwhelmingly voted for you and rejoiced with you when you won by a landslide. Similarly we felt for and mourned with you during your sorrow-filled times. The least that we ask for is that we be given our due and treated as equal citizens consistent with the internationally accepted standards of human rights and dignity. God bless you Sir.


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