Monday, November 11, 2013

Malaysia’s poor performance in upholding human rights – Ganeshwaran Kana

The Malaysian government has always been a vocal voice in international arena, slamming foreign governments for their failures in championing human rights. Malaysia has also stood tall amongst its other “peers” in advocating for a non-aligned, peaceful and moderate world for all.

Malaysia has had its firm stand against the encroachment of the Palestinian territory by the Israeli forces, the United States’ military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq, under the premise of “War on Terror” and even against the Apartheid regime of South Africa prior to the blacks’ disenfranchisement in 1994. Why, the articulate former Prime Minister of Malaysia, Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad even initiated an international tribunal to prosecute Tony Blair and George Bush Jr. for war crimes.

But, then again, a bigger question arises, is everything in Malaysia as rosy as said?

1) The ultimate doctrine of the nation, the Federal Constitution upholds the rights of individuals in freedom of religion as enshrined in Part II, Article 11. However, in reality, this freedom of religion in Malaysia can end up being a contentious issue. One major factor for such arguments is the recent Court of Appeal’s judgement, prohibiting the usage of the term “Allah” by a weekly called The Herald Catholics. Such judgement has created rift between the Muslims and non-Muslims communities in Malaysia, with many public figures claiming exclusiveness of such term, only for the faithful of Islam. However, the recent press statement of the Honourable Prime Minister, indicating that non-Muslims can continue to use the term and the judgement shall be confined only to The Herald, has created confusion over this contradicting situations.

2) As a further matter, Hindu temples demolition in Malaysia has caused disappointment within the Hindu community of Malaysia. To elaborate, many Hindu temples were built in Malaysia and as the famous Emeritus Professor Khoo Kay Kim puts it, there are more than 16,000 Hindu temples in this country. However, many of these religious buildings were built in rubber estates and even before independence. In the long-run, many of these temples are not registered with the government and are deemed illegal. With more and more developments taking centre stage in Malaysia now, many of these temples fall in the intended development zone and later on, face demolition threats from the developers. The recent incident at the Muniswarar Kaliyaman temple in P.Ramlee Street, Kuala Lumpur where part of the temple structure was demolished by the Kuala Lumpur City Council, was seen as infringement of freedom of religion. Even the Federal Territories Minister, Datuk Seri Tengku Adnan has defended the act, saying the demolition is valid and is done legally as ordered by the court. But, he has failed to produce a copy of the order.

However, earlier prior to the demolition, a court has declared that any attempt of demolition of the Muniswarar temple would be considered void and illegal. And a copy of this judgement has been produced by R. Sivarasa, the MP for Subang. This clearly contradicts with the statement given by the Minister and shows that, the act of demolition by Kuala Lumpur City Council is illegal and against the law.

Not only that, the way of the temple structure was demolished was considered inconsiderate and rude by the masses. This is due to the council workers entering the temple vicinity, wearing boots and the statues were removed not by the priests but by the Muslim council workers. This also contradicts Hinduism’s practice as any deity statues removal needs to be done accordingly through a ritual.

Religious buildings should be respected by everyone, even if it means the authorities. Any rude intrusion as shown by the council workers should be condemned and those responsible should be made to apologise. However, sadly up to this very moment, no actions have been taken, just like what happened to the rest of the temples that were demolished.

3) Freedom of religion does not only limit to different religions but also to different denominations within a religion. In Malaysia, faithful of Islam constitutes the majority population amongst the 28.5 million citizens of Malaysia. Almost all Muslims in Malaysia are called the Sunni Muslims. Yet, there are other denominations such as Shia (a group of Muslims who consider Saidina Ali bin Abu Talib as the last prophet contrary to the belief of Sunni Muslims, where Prophet Muhammad is considered as the last prophet of Islam). Social activists and several politicians have advocated against the persecution of Shia Muslims in Malaysia.

Minister in Prime Minister’s Department, Dato' Seri Jamil Khir bin Baharom who is in charge of Islamic affairs, has previously said that Shia Muslims can continue to practise their belief in Malaysia without any persecution from the government, provided that the teachings of this sect are not spread. However, this clearly contradicts with a 1996 edict by the National Fatwa Council which ruled that Shia is a deviant sect and banned its practice. Not only that, Datuk Seri Abdul Rahim, the secretary-general of the Home Ministry announced the growth of the minority Shia population, along with government plans to root out the movement.

The government’s stand in this issue remains ambiguous and confusing. However, taking into consideration the need to honour the right of an individual to practise his or her belief, persecution of the Shia movement should be brought to a rigid full stop. For this, roundtable discussions between the representative of the Sunni and Shia Muslims should be organised to attain a win-win situation. The government needs to understand that forcing an individual to accept a belief that he or she does not subscribe will prove to be futile.

4) Malaysia’s treatment of the registered asylum seekers or refugees from countries in the midst of conflict has also been debated for quite some time. The Malaysian Government is yet to ratify the 1951 Refugee Convention or its 1967 Protocol under United Nations and has taken less effort to provide welfare to these people seeking refuge. According to official report, there are around 115,819 refugees in Malaysia registered under the United Nations’ High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). And the vast majority of them are from Myanmar, which has suffered from decades of brutal military administration.

Although these registered asylum seekers are protected from the tensions in their homeland, they are prohibited from working or getting education in Malaysia. Currently, many refugees are sustaining their lives in Malaysia by doing odd jobs. Children of the refugees have been denied the right for education, limiting them only for informal education.

Asylum seekers are different than illegal foreign immigrants as they are here to seek life protection and not to exploit our economic opportunity. They are allowed to enter Malaysia’s in the interest of humanity. The Malaysian Government needs to ratify the Refugee Convention and establish a proper framework to provide a good protection for the refugees. Once they are registered under UNHCR, they ought to be allowed to enter the workforce and to receive education.

5) Other than that, the government’s inaction against its own politicians and affiliates who produce seditious statements, have showcased the government’s biasness. Anti-race statements made by former Chief Minister of Melaka, Datuk Seri Mohd Ali Rustam, current Menteri Besar of Kedah, Dato’ Mukhriz Mahathir and the President of PERKASA (a Malay supremacist group), Dato’ Ibrahim Ali who threatened the Holy Bible, fell on deaf ears and were never taken any actions upon. Why, even the current Urban Wellbeing, Housing and Local Government Minister, Dato’ Abdul Rahman Dahlan has defended Ibrahim Ali’s despicable statement!

Contrary to this, many leaders in the opposition pact, Pakatan Rakyat has been brought to justice for their so-called “seditious statements”. These include Batu Member of Parliament, Tian Chua, PAS member Shafor and activists Hariz Fathillah Mohamed Ibrahim, Safwan Anang and Hishamuddin Rais. It is not my intention to defend these Pakatan Rakyat representatives but, if these people can be prosecuted for their statements, BN’s politicians who uttered anti-racial statement should also be brought to court. The Sedition Act is not to be used for political expediency, but for national harmony.

6) Malaysia’s affirmative action which favours the Bumiputera group can also be seen as a threat to human rights. Each and every citizens of Malaysia is entitled to equal rights in a country, regardless of his or her skin complexion or ethnicity. For me, the affirmative action practised by the Barisan Nasional Government in the past four decades has left the elites to reap the most benefits. This is evident through the stark disparity between the rich and the poor within the Bumiputera group. The intra-race Gini coefficient study in 2009 has proved that Gini coefficient for the Bumiputera group is 0.44 and is higher compared to the Chinese and Indian communities.

To the uninitiated, the Gini index ranges from 0 till 1. The closer the index is to 1, the higher the income disparity between the rich and the poor. This particular coefficient has clearly indicated that the Bumiputera group in Malaysia is plagued by the “rich get richer, poor get poorer” syndrome despite the so-called “success” of the New Economic Policy.

What Malaysia needs now is an Equal Rights Commission which was advocated by the National Economic Actions Council (NEAC). Malaysians should be left to stand on an equal and just economy for the betterment of the nation.

However, whenever talks regarding equal rights and affirmative action arise, these are blocked by political interference. In 2008, when the Bar Council has suggested for a national forum on social contract, the then Prime Minister, Tun Abdullah Badawi has objected the need for such a forum or discussion. This was again reiterated by a royal statement from the Conference of Rulers.

Should Malaysia aspire to be one of the respected developed countries internationally, all Malaysians should be seen equal and any political or economic marginalisation should be ultimately eradicated.

7) In 2013, Malaysia continued its downward slide in the Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF)’s press freedom index – dropping to 145th position out of 179 countries – Malaysia’s lowest ranking ever yet. In 2007, Malaysia was placed at 124th. Even worse, in 2011, Malaysia was listed under the “Countries under Surveillance” list for its suppression of Internet freedom amongst the Malaysian citizens. This clearly indicates the limitations of freedom of information in Malaysia. Mainstream mass media has for long been seen as pro-ruling government and partisan.

This has to change, as soon as possible. A mature and intellectual Malaysian community can only be realised if free and neutral information is allowed to “roam” in Malaysia’s atmosphere.

8) Detention without trial is an example of infringement of human liberty. As the conventional wisdom goes, “a man is innocent until he is proven otherwise”. Malaysia gained international plaudits when the Prime Minister announced the abolishment of the draconian Internal Security Act (ISA) which was passed in 1960, with the intention only to prosecute the communists, back in the old days.

However, the plaudits have now gone to waste with the amendment to the Crime Prevention Act 1959 being passed by the Parliament. This amendment allows for detention without trial up to two years, exactly like ISA. The public realises that the organised crime rate in Malaysia has increased in recent years, especially after the abolishment of the Emergency Ordinance (EO) and ISA in 2011. But, this doesn’t necessarily means that the re-introduction of the detention without trial is justified.

Supposedly, the police force should be able to reinforce their intelligence expertise and enforcement strength, rather than just to nab individuals and lock them up. The Royal Malaysian Police force needs a major overhaul in dealing with such organised crimes and again, detention without trial shall never be the answer.

The Human Rights Council’s (HRC) Universal Periodic Review (UPR) for was done on Oct 24, four years after the first in 2009. United Nations member countries urged Malaysia to abolish capital punishment, repeal oppressive laws, and respect the rights of Orang Asli and individual religious practices.

Malaysia is in a serious need to ratify the Convention on Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination as racial problems are still on-going despite the multi-racial community living together for more than half a century. Besides, Human Rights Commission of Malaysia or SUHAKAM’s annual reports need to be debated in Parliament to scrutinise the human rights’ plaguing problem in Malaysia. It is troubling that despite its establishment in 1999 and SUHAKAM’s success in sending its annual reports to the Parliament, they were never debated. The time has come for the government to pay heed to the recommendations of the SUHAKAM reports for a better administration that upholds human liberty.