Friday, 19 December 2008

Should we have such an Act?

Brave New World (The Star)
Friday October 3, 2008

"A Race Relations Act will have to take into consideration certain articles entrenched in the Constitution as well as ensure that mature public dialogue is not stifled."


A Race Relations Act is in the works, it would appear. How nice; a law to help the different races have relations. It is still early days yet.

There isn’t a draft to examine, so any discussion will have to be based on more general issues regarding the implications of such a law.

Unity, Culture, Arts and Heritage Minister Datuk Seri Shafie Apdal has made it clear that the Government has studied similar laws on race relations in other countries and is now in the process of developing our own.

I would like to take this opportunity to raise some concerns.

Firstly, race relations laws like the one they have in the UK is more about ensuring that there is no discrimination on the basis of race with regard to matters such as employment, education and the like.

It’s not a bad thing. In fact, it’s a pretty good thing.

If a person feels he is being treated unfairly at work because of his ethnicity, then it is good to have a law to help him get justice.

I have always advocated such a law, especially when told about how, in the private sector, certain races are supposedly not given the time of day.

However, if this is the purpose of the Act, then the principle will have to be applied across the board, in the private as well as public sector.

Is this going to happen? Fat chance.

The Constitution allows for quotas to be set in the public sector for bumiputras and I doubt that the Government of the day is going to do away with those provisions.

If this is the case, then any legal requirement for fair treatment becomes a farce.

Surely, the Government is not so silly as to mean a law for equal treatment then.

What is left? Maybe it will simply be a law to prevent people from saying nasty things to others based on race and, perhaps, religion. A law to stop hate speech.

Again, this is not necessarily a bad thing. But then we must look at the matter in the context of Malaysia.

Do we have similar laws along the same vein? Yes, we do. It’s called the Sedition Act.

Why the need for a new law then?

Furthermore, any law would be used according to the discretion of the powers that be.

I am very uncertain as to whether such a law would be used fairly.

I am worried that some comments would be deemed more hateful than others depending on whom it is aimed at.

After all, we can see in recent times how a blogger’s comments were deemed so inflammatory that he deserved to be locked up without trial, and yet, a politician can say hateful things and no law is used against him.

He gets a slap on the wrist and goes on with his jolly little life.

Also, just what is going to be defined as “hate speech”?

I suppose some things are obvious.

Associating certain races with certain porcine mammals should be in there.

But what about legitimate discussions? Will these be included as well?

Let us look at one battle cry that has been raised in recent times. According to some people (and they run the whole gamut from two-bit politicians to so-called academics), the Malays and their precious rights are being challenged. (Tellingly, details are never provided.)

Now, legally, these “rights” (they are privileges actually, not rights) can be found in Articles 152 and 153 of the Constitution.

Article 152 is about Bahasa Malaysia being the official language and 153 is the power given to the Yang di-Pertuan Agong to set quotas in matters of public service, education, permits and licences for bumiputras.

One thing I want to make clear here is that Article 153 gives the King a discretionary power, and it has to be done to a level which he deems reasonable.

What does “reasonable” mean? This is a subjective term, and common sense would dictate that it can be open for discussion.

What if this new proposed law deemed such discussions to be “hate speech” or causing a “breakdown in race relations”?

It would mean another nail in the coffin of Malaysian civil liberties.

I must admit I am writing purely on conjecture.

But in countries where a race relations law exists, they more often that not have a strong foundation in human rights. We don’t.

It could very well mean a further erosion of the precious few rights of expression that we do have.

To summarise, my main concerns are three-fold: an equal opportunities law will not work in a legal system with an institutionalised system of discrimination; the application of laws in this country does not appear to be fair; and there is always the possibility that a Malaysian Race Relations Act will serve only to chip away the few chances we have at any sort of mature public dialogue.

We have problems in this country. Perhaps the way forward is to openly debate such matters in an intelligent fashion.

It is not speech which causes problems after all; it is the irresponsible few who threaten people with violence and fire bombs who are the real threat.

And we have laws aplenty to deal with such elements.

That is, if those laws are ever used against the real perpetrators.

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