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Sunday, 17 March 2013

Rights and governance in Malaysia: between tragic idleness and persistent urgent action by Teo Lee Ken (NUS Phd candidate)

A Book Review: “PROHAM & Human Rights Concerns in Malaysia, edited by Denison Jayasooria”

 Saya telah mencuba menggunakannya (bahasa) untuk menyuarakan hati nurani saya yang saya percaya adalah juga hati nurani masyarakat, maka dalam penyuaraan itu saya tidak membatasi golongan kaum, bangsa, kepercayaan dan warna kulit. Telah berulang-ulang saya nyatakan bahawa teriakan seorang anak penjual kuetiau di Petaling Street tidak ada bezanya dengan teriakan seorang anak penjual nasi lemak di Kawasan Melayu Petaling Jaya atau di Kampung Baru, Kuala Lumpur, yang tidak juga berbeza daripada suara seorang anak penjual tose di Jalan Brickfields.” -Usman Awang, Malaysian National Laureate-

I find myself suddenly in the world and I recognize that I have one right alone: That of demanding human behavior from the other.”
                                      -Frantz Fanon, Black Skin White Masks-

Datuk Dr Denison Jayasooria is no stranger to the field of public advocacy. He is at his best when it comes to bringing together prominent former and current government leaders, key figures of institutions and think-tanks, leading personalities of civil society, as well as grassroots and community-based leaders for public engagement sessions at all levels. The publication by PROHAM or the Society for the Promotion of Human Rights of this latest book compiled and edited by him with the assistance of Jacqueline Ann Surin and Deborah Loh, who themselves are seasoned writers and well-known in their field, affirms this point.

The overall structure of this compilation is comprehensive in its scope. Its careful arrangement of the points, comments and conversations obtained through the Roundtable Discussions makes it convenient to read, and they are documented and reproduced in the book to each and every detail. Comprehensive and detailed documentation has always been Datuk Dr. Denison’s major strength and remains the hallmark of all his works and papers. The book comprises 5 parts, with the first four focusing on the themes of electoral reforms, civil and socio-economic rights, religion and institutional frameworks. The last part consists of press statements issued by PROHAM and three papers written by its Chairman, Tan Sri Simon Sipaun.   

 It is not the intent of this review to explain or summarize the contents. Rather it will attempt to highlight the key themes or salient features of the book. It is worth noting that the book begins in the first part with the discussions on electoral reform. By doing so it captures accurately the immediate necessity for a condition of equality in Malaysia. For a nation to be free and democratic all groups and individuals have to be entitled to a level-playing field. In the case of elections, this entails the requirement that all competing parties and stakeholders are given equal rights and access by the law and all public policies where decision-making is not carried out arbitrarily and in secrecy, but transparently and impartially. A society that is equal and democratic allows the electorate to make informed decisions. The condition of equality as a basis and the necessity for electoral reform to ensure and maintain this condition is therefore vital. Without these prerequisites, popular sovereignty and public legitimacy cannot be obtained, thereby eroding the very foundation of a nation.

 Another key theme is the nature of the indivisibility and interdependence of human rights in terms of the inseparability of civil-political and socio-economic rights. This is referred to in Chapters 4 and 5 focusing on Millennium Development Goals and Orang Asli Land. The call and recommendation for more ‘participatory, community-based involvement’, ‘stronger social inclusion’ and ‘stronger political will’ together with the tackling of social issues such as poverty and access to quality education, and a relation of ‘equal partnership’ in the recognition of the Orang Asli and their lands expresses exactly its impossible separation. That Part II is titled ‘Human Rights & Socio-economic Rights’ although socio-economic rights is already implied in and an internal constituent of human rights itself appears to make the distinction of civil-political rights as a different, but nevertheless indispensable component therein.

On the third and final theme, no discussion of human rights is complete if mention of the significance and role of institutional mechanisms is absent. While human rights as an approach encompasses theory, practice, advocacy and organization among others, State and international institutions as well as national, regional and global mechanisms form an essential mainstay of the idea of human rights. If a condition of equality is to be maintained and enforced, and if civil-political and socio-economic rights are to move in unison, independent institutions and transparent mechanisms are necessary. As such the discussion and review of institutional mechanisms that is presented and allocated a specific section in the book, could not be more apt.

 As a whole, this book is an important publication and should be recommended to anyone who is interested in attaining a broad yet detailed understanding of the nature and scope of human rights in Malaysia. This is due firstly to its support and affirmation of the importance and need for human rights, and the constructive perspective that it lends for an evaluation of the Malaysian socio-political and economic landscape. Secondly, it believes in the need for a human rights approach to public policy and governance. The book attempts to bridge the ideals of human rights with policy-making and institutional governance. And lastly, what the book and its discussion of human rights contribute, at the very least, is to provide a framework for the identifying of problems, and new ways of looking at old problems. And further, to define new problems and challenges that may later be encountered by society.

This last point is particularly crucial and cannot be emphasized more because to this day the discourse of human rights has always been challenged and disputed on many fronts. None has acquired more prominence and argued more forcefully than the ideas of Asian values and Islamic values and traditions. These contentions are however misplaced, inherently problematic and dangerous. For there has never been a binary demarcation of values belonging to Asia and the West, or Islam and the West. Such binary approach is a recent invention, and undeniably an extension of the binary ‘us’ and ‘the other’ categorization first introduced by the colonial powers in propagating the ideology of colonial racism.

The only reservation that one might sense in this book is the part on human rights and religious tolerance. Moderation and tolerance is admirable and should be practiced whenever possible. However there should also be an awareness for in determining practices and rituals of even those related to religion, one should not tolerate bad or unfair practices, or choose to stand in the middle, tolerating and accepting neither the good nor the bad. More so within the parameters of institutions and public policy where the rule of law is positioned because they function with strict and formal categories. It can only be one of the two: good or bad, fair or unfair, truth or untruth. Thus terms and beliefs such as ‘moderation’ and ‘tolerance’ may appear beneficial and neutral, but can also be hollow and not useful.

Still, this book is a reminder of the many issues that persist and how so much more effort and work has to be put in and undertaken to address them. Not only in terms of scholarly and policy papers, but also in implementation and action. Reading through the book, one is consumed by a feeling of tragedy and injustice as many issues that should have been addressed and resolved decades before still continue to affect the layperson. Change and action no longer becomes a choice, but is now an obligation.

The publication of this book, and its attempt to reposition the discourse of human rights in mainstream and national conversations and policy-making, only points us to this direction. It is above all a persuasion to revive the moral foundation and conscience of Malaysian society. To answer the critics of human rights again, rather than a euphemism for ‘Western decadent culture’, the idea of human rights at its most fundamental expresses only the moral conscience and universal solidarity of all beings. With the 13th General Elections looming the call and journey into the future, and the leaving behind of whatever has happened in the past, can ill-afford to ignore this moral basis.

It is because of all these reasons that this book necessarily merits complete attention. On the basis of theory nothing much can be said of this book. However it would be clearly wrong to approach it this way, because it is not intended to provide a theoretical analysis or perspective. Rather it presents a canvas and analyses the implementation of human rights at the institutional and practical level. Viewed from this vantage point and terms of usage, this book stands out and has a deserving place in the conversations on human rights in Malaysian society.

This book is also testament of the hard work, commitment and determination that PROHAM, and Datuk Dr Denison, has invested from its formation until today. Its willingness to and commitment of publicly taking a position that upholds, faith in humanity, and the value of human dignity, is not something that can be commonly found, especially in the corridors of power, today.
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Teo Lee Ken, PhD Candidate, Department of Malay Studies, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, National University of Singapore 16 March - 2013

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