Thursday, 12 March 2009

High hopes on Suhakam which has little power

Brave New World (The Star)
March 5, 2009

"Malaysians have this thing where they hope some mighty champion will sweep down from the mountains and solve their problems for them."


Last weekend I was at a public forum organised by ERA Consumer. It was held in Johor Baru. I have not been to JB for many years and I found that it has the largest concentration of modified Protons I have ever seen.

That’s not the point of this article though. The forum was held to get feedback from the public regarding ERA Consumer’s report on Suhakam’s 2006 Annual Report.

What I noticed from the comments of the audience was a very strong desire for Suhakam to “do more” in the field of human rights.

Underlying the comments is a sense that Suhakam is a body that the citizens of this country can look to for assistance, and if Suhakam can’t get the attention of the government, then what hope is there for ordinary folks like you and me?

This is an understandable sentiment, but perhaps a little unrealistic. Suhakam does not have any real powers. It is not a body that can start prosecutions, for example. Its role is largely advisory and also educational.

For Suhakam to be able to “do more” would thus require an amendment to the Act which created it. Any dramatic changes are unlikely.

And even today the Suhakam annual report is not given any debate time in Parliament. Be that as it may, perhaps some simple changes could be pushed for.

For example, the appointment of Commissioners could be narrowed down from any old “eminent persons” that the Act specifies, to “eminent persons with a record of human rights work”.

As it stands, the Commission is large and filled with people who are not necessarily experts on human rights.

However, even without a change in the law, Suhakam can make itself more relevant by being more proactive in its endeavours. Education is well and good, but really it should push its power to conduct inquiries.

The Bandar Mahkota Cheras inquiry into the alleged police brutality inflicted on a young man was emphatic in its condemnation of the police and clearly stated that a wrong was committed.

So far (according to its website) Suhakam has only conducted three public inquiries. By focusing on these inquiries, Suhakam would be working on real cases of immediate concern to the citizens. And furthermore, it can start an inquiry on its own volition if it so chooses.

It is of course wonderful if Suhakam were to have real powers and play the hero for us, but another thing I noticed at the public forum in Modified Proton Land, is what I call the “Hang Tuah Complex” raising its little head again.

I have noticed that Malaysians have this thing where they are constantly hoping for some mighty champion to sweep down from the mountains and solve their problems for them. The way I see it, Suhakam is merely one cog in the wheel of human rights activism.

Sure they are pretty powerless but there is nothing to stop civil society from using its findings. Raise the findings, publicise them and demand they be acted upon.

After all, Suhakam is not some loony NGO. It is a legally constituted body created by the Government. Surely what it says must have some kernel of truth.

If the Government does not want to take what Suhakam says seriously, then we have every right to ask why not.

It’s in the Constitution

Brave New World (The Star)
February 19, 2009

"Sultans and Rajas are constitutional monarchs and have powers determined by the Federal Constitution."


I wish that all those people calling for Karpal Singh’s head would just take a minute and pick up the Federal Constitution. Turn to Article 182 and you will see provisions for a “Special Court”.

The job of this Special Court is to try civil proceedings brought against the Yang di-Pertuan Agong or any of the Sultans.

This was not always the case. Before 1993, the rulers had absolute immunity. And before 1984, they actually had the power to veto legislation. These powers were taken away by the Barisan Nasional government headed by Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.

DAP chairman Karpal Singh’s desire for the Sultan of Perak to be brought to court is reasonable and allowed for by law. Besides, I think it is a good thing that the King and the Sultans can be brought to court.

You see, the days of the all-powerful king is gone now and that is, for me at least, progress. It shows that we are a society that values democracy.

Yes, we have Sultans and Rajas, but they are constitutional monarchs. This means that they have powers determined by the Constitution and not some divine power to do as they wish. This being the case, surely if they overstep their boundaries, if they behave in an unconstitutional manner, they should be challenged – respectfully, properly – in a court of law.

Now, did the Sultan of Perak act in a way that was unconstitutional when he appointed a new Mentri Besar? It is arguable.

The power to appoint a Mentri Besar is clearly at the discretion of the Sultan. This is one of the few real powers that he has. A power that he does not have is to dismiss an existing Mentri Besar.

Usually this does not raise many problems. During the last general election, we saw the Sultan of Perak and the Sultan of Terengganu both deciding on who should be the new Mentri Besar of their respective states.

They made decisions that went against the desires of the majority party in both state legislative assemblies. The two monarchs thought that their choices commanded the confidence of the two Houses and were the best men for the job. It was their prerogative.

But the current case in Perak is different. The Sultan chose a new Mentri Besar while the old one was still in office. By appointing a new man, he was in effect sacking the old one. And sacking the Mentri Besar is not within his constitutional powers.

I think there is room for debate on this matter and, ideally, it should be settled in the Special Court.

Actually, I am rather curious as to why the Sultan did not just dissolve the state assembly when requested. All this party-hopping business was wreaking havoc on the public’s faith in the democratic system.

Surely, the clearest and fairest way out of the debacle was to have fresh state elections.

For the sake of continued faith in democracy, I would have thought the Sultan, who has spoken many times so eloquently about democracy and rule of law, would have just said “right, let the people decide again”.

After all, the greatest threat to political, and thus national, stability are a people who have lost their faith in the democratic system. It is only when such faith is lost that extreme behaviour emerges.

Anyway, what is done is done; legal battles are being fought over the Perak matter and that particular crisis will be settled in its own time.

Meanwhile, there is much that can still be achieved. The states ruled by Pakatan Rakyat must continue to push their agenda forward and live up to their election promises.

For example, I notice with a little dismay that the new Selangor government has yet to withdraw the case against Sagong Tasi.

In 2002, Sagong obtained a judgment in his favour by the Court of Appeal which held that his Orang Asli community had a propriety interest in their customary land. This meant that when the land was taken by the government, they should have been properly compensated.

This case was against the former state government and, of course, Datuk Seri Khir Toyo and his men appealed the decision.

Considering the fact that Pakatan Rakyat is concerned about justice and fair treatment to all Malaysians, and considering also that the last MB of Perak was making headway in granting proper titles to the Orang Asli in his state, the current Selangor government should just stop the action.

Yes, the battle of Perak must continue. But there are many other battles to be fought and won. Fairness and justice must be striven for on all fronts, continuously. It’s easy to forget this amid the shrill cries of “traitor” by the ill-informed.

Where are our human values?

Brave New World (The Star)
February 5, 2009

"How the nation responds in the wake of A. Kugan’s death in police custody reflects the values that we have as a society."


Kugan Ananthan is not the first person to die while in police custody. I doubt he will be the last. The actual numbers who have so far died are unclear because of the contrasting data given by the authorities.

But we need to know the actual details. We need to know the reasons why they died, and we need to know the ethnicity of those who died.

We have to know how many of those deaths are caused by beatings and torture because such deaths are totally unacceptable.

And while it is true that this issue is one about human rights and not about race, if the numbers show a disproportionately high number of Indians dying while in police custody, it becomes not just a human rights issue; it also becomes an issue of racism.

If it is true that Indians held in custody died in higher numbers compared with those of other races, and if it is true that their deaths were due to torture and beatings, then there are two possibilities – one, there are individual racists on the police force; two, which is worse, the police force as a whole practices racist policies. Neither is acceptable.

An investigation has to be conducted, and it has to be done by an independent body.

The police and the executive, for the sake of their own credibility, must not be allowed to conduct it themselves.

For the good of the nation, this independent investigation has to be given priority.

The issue of death in custody is important because the manner with which we treat our people, even those who have committed crimes, is a reflection of the kind of society we are.

On a very basic level of argument, even if you are in jail after being convicted, your sentence, the price you pay for your crime, is your incarceration. Not death.

Yes, we do have the death penalty in this country but it is for specific crimes like murder and drug trafficking.

Yes, we have corporal punishment in this country, but it is for specific crimes like kidnapping and rape.

There are ways and means to administer these punishments and they have to be followed. Anything short of that is lawlessness and barbarity.

And for those who are incarcerated pending trial, it is even more important that they are not hurt or killed, because at that point they are still considered innocent.

I have heard talk that Kugan was part of a gang of car thieves, that he was a crook. All this does not matter to me one single bit. Why? Because Kugan was not convicted in a court of law, and until he is, he is innocent. The death of Kugan is the death of an innocent man.

In a way, as awful as this may sound, I will not be surprised if an independent study shows that there are deaths in custody as the result of beatings and torture.

It all boils down to the values that we have as a society.

Do we believe that the ends justify the means or do we hold to the idea that certain core principles must hold sway, principles like the outright rejection of torture and that a man is innocent until proven guilty?

As pointless and as cruel as Kugan’s death may be, at the very least it ought to provoke us into asking these questions.

Wow! Umno has to wake up

Brave New World (The Star)
January 22, 2009

"The party has now to be more open and allow its young members to move to the fore considering that it was young voters who made the difference in Kuala Terengganu."


So, it seems that Umno has lost its “wow” factor, according to party vice-president Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin.

I don’t think so. For one thing, for the past 10 months I have been saying to myself, “Wow! It still hasn’t learnt the lessons of March 8!”The result of the Kuala Terengganu (KT) by-election, and more importantly the reaction of some of the top Umno leaders after the defeat, also left me saying “Wow!”

“Wow” because I did not think it would lose. KT was different from Permatang Pauh (PP). In PP, the people had already chosen PKR, and Datin Seri Wan Azizah had won with a huge majority.

Furthermore the PKR candidate for that by-election was Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, the constituents’ old MP and favourite son.

In KT, Umno had won in March. Sure, it was by a slim majority (just over 600 votes), but basically it was the incumbent party and it had the entire Barisan Nasional machinery at its disposal for this campaign.

What with all the goodies that the people of KT would be presented with, plus the postal votes, it seemed unlikely Umno would lose that seat. Boy, was I wrong.

The swing came to over 3,000 votes, which means Umno really should be very concerned.

I am sure they are, but when t he leadership makes statements saying this was not a reflection of people’s loss of faith in Barisan Nasional, well, again I had to say “Wow!”

How can it not be a statement against the ruling party and the present government? If it were a state seat in question, perhaps the personality of the candidates, their appreciation of local issues, would be the primary factor.

But this election was for a Member of Parliament. It was about having a voice in Parliament, which is situated in Kuala Lumpur.

I don’t think the good people of KT are so simple-minded that they did not realise the implication of their vote.

The only thing that can help Umno now is to change fundamentally, and I wonder if that is a possibility. Umno was traditionally a party of teachers. I have a soft spot for teachers, so perhaps I am biased, but in the decades before and after Merdeka, teachers had a lot of clout.

They were respected and supported not because they were wealthy but because they were knowledgeable and educated.

That is why up until fairly recently, the education portfolio was considered so vital and a stepping stone towards the premiership. Work with the educationists and you had your grassroots support for the job of Prime Minister.

Now Umno has become a party of businessmen. The vast majority of division heads are businessmen.

That cherished value of knowledge and education has been replaced with wealth and the ability to obtain contracts.

This means there is no strong foundation of principle (whether I agree with the principle or not is not the point here) and idealism.

Being part of Umno becomes like being part of a business opportunity.

This has the further effect of making the holding on to such posts an economic consideration. This in turn means that challengers will not be viewed favourably.

Therein lies the problem. Maybe there are new Umno members who can climb the ranks and provide them with that “wow” factor. But they will be inhibited by their youth and their lack of wealth.

Idealism and new ideas will be seen as a threat by the old guard who would want to maintain their lucrative status quo.

And when I talk about the young, I don’t mean the rabble-rousing Mat Rempit stylings of Umno Youth. I mean new blood with fresh idealism and ideas, those who are more in touch with the needs and the demands of Malaysians in the 21st Century.

And perhaps those who are not beholden to racist ideas for their political collateral.

Considering that political analysts have pointed out that the swing in KT was due primarily to young voters, Umno has now to be more open and allow its young members to move to the fore. This should be done based on merit and ability, and nothing else.

I do not want to see the destruction of any political party. A diverse group of parties is what makes for a healthy democracy, no matter what we may think of them. And so it is with Umno.

However, unless it truly gets its act together, eject its dinosaurs and their outmoded way of thinking, there will be many more KTs, and in time people will be saying, “Wow! Whatever happened to Umno?”

Israeli cruelty must be stopped

Brave New World (The Star)
January 8, 2009

"The Jewish state seems not to want peace, but to stoke Palestinian fury. The lesson to civilised nations is that they must never behave like Israel."


Nineteen eighty-one was an election year in Israel. Then Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s campaign was not off to a good start. So he bombed “PLO strongholds” in Lebanon; nothing like the killing of a few Arab “terrorists” to get the electorate on your side.

The PLO retaliated by shelling northern Israel. The Israelis replied by bombing the living daylights out of Beirut. In this exchange, five Israelis died whereas the death toll of Lebanese and Palestinians was 500.

A truce was then signed between Israel and the PLO. This truce held for 11 months. Then Israel complained that the PLO was attacking its soldiers. Even America saw through this ruse by pointing out that the Israeli soldiers being shot at were in Lebanese territory, where they should not be in the first place.

But what were such minor details to Begin? Israel broke the truce and invaded Lebanon. And a few hours after promising the American Special Envoy that Syria would be left alone, it attacked Syria.

Thousands of Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese died. Hospitals, schools, school buses, civilian homes were bombed, shot at and crushed by tanks. It was an utter massacre and Israel got away scot-free.

In late 1987, in Gaza, four Pales- tinians were killed by an Israeli truck. This sparked the Intifada or people’s uprising.

After decades of torment, the Palestinians had nothing left but their fury and the stones at their feet. During this period, also as a reaction to Israeli atrocities, Hamas was formed.

Fast forward to 2006 and Hamas is the democratically elected government of the Palestinian people. Contrary to Israeli propaganda, Hamas was willing to give de facto recognition to Israel if it pulled back to its 1967 border.

Considering that the Israeli border was expanded via an illegal war in 1967 which it initiated, it was not a terribly unreasonable request. But this was rejected.

And because it did not like Hamas, Israel (with the blessings of America) blockaded the Palestinian territories, causing untold suffering and grief.

Then in June 2006, Israel bombed a beach in Gaza, killing 14 people. Hamas retaliated by shooting rockets into Israel. The latter, in turn, invaded Gaza and started capturing elected Hamas officials.

This little war stopped in June 2008 with a ceasefire. This truce came to an end recently and Hamas was willing to keep it going on the condition that the blockade was lifted and a ceasefire was initiated in the West Bank.

We know what Israel’s reaction was – it has been spilled all over our front pages for the past week.

The anger being expressed at Israel’s disproportionately barbaric attack on Gaza, its arrogance and utter refusal to accept its part in the creation of this bloody mess is, in my opinion, completely justified.

Israel seems to be single-mindedly determined not to make any concessions whatsoever; the only logical reason for this that I can see is that Israel does not want peace.

It wants to make sure that Pales- tine is kept impoverished and desperate by being in a state of perpetual conflict. It would appear that Israel wants war and by doing all that it can to cause the spilling of blood and keep the fury of the Palestinian people alive; that is what it will get.

There would not have been a PLO if Israel had not begun its offensives against Palestine in the 1940s. There would not have been a Hamas if Israel had not butchered innocents in Lebanon in the 1980s.

Who knows what new manifestation of desperation and anger this latest act of violence will create?

Here in Malaysia, a lot of effort has been initiated, with funds being collected for humanitarian purposes and calls being made on our Govern- ment to keep pressing for an international effort to stop Israel. Such efforts must continue.

It is a little sad, however, that it needs such a cruel act by Israel to generate such action. In “peace time”, the quiet work of the Malay- sian Sociological Research Institute, which has been organising the sponsorship of Palestinian refugee children in Lebanon for decades, has suffered because the number of donors has shrunk.

Efforts to help Palestine and the Palestinians have to be seen as an ongoing. It is not enough to take measures to help those who are suffering only sporadically.

Neither is it good enough that our ire is raised only for the Palestinian cause. There is much cruelty in the world, for example, the genocide in Darfur.

It is not expected of individuals to care for every cause, but our Government has a responsibility to speak out against injustice wherever and to whomever it may happen.

The Israeli government (note please that I do not at any time condemn either Israeli citizens or Jews in general; there are too many cases of individuals who despise Israeli aggression for broad generalisations to be made) has shown time and again their hypocrisy and selectiveness, where what is all right for them is not all right for anyone else.

We can’t go down that road of hypocrisy and selectiveness. What is wrong must be opposed.

In the end, Israel’s cruelty is nothing new. It has been sporting that for half a century. It must be opposed until it stops. To my mind, the lesson it gives to civilised nations is that we must never, ever, in any way behave like Israel.