Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Sore need for plurality in law

Brave New World (The Star)
18 November 2010

Over the years, our courts as a whole have been steadily abdicating their duty to protect the citizens’ rights as stated in the Federal Constitution.


YOU may remember the Shamala case; the story of a Hindu man converting to Islam and then without the consent of his Hindu wife converting their two small children as well. The latest development in this saga is the Federal Court decision on the 12th of this month.
The roots of this case lie in the judgment of the High Court in 2004; the judge held that it was all right for one parent to convert their child without consent from the other.
His reasoning was based on Article 12 (4) of the Federal Constitution which states: “The religion of a person under the age of 18 years shall be decided by his parent or guardian”.
He noted that the article says “parent”, not “parents”. This is an overly simplistic literal interpretation of the article, for if taken to its logical conclusion what it can lead to is a child being converted by one parent one day and then converted again by the other parent the next day.
Surely this ridiculous situation was not what the article intended and surely it can be implied that the word “parent” means both parents.
He then proceeded to give custody to the mother but on the condition that she will not expose the children to her Hindu faith. Again, this is another strange ruling. It places an unreasonable condition on the mother.
After this decision, the mother left the country with her two children.
Meanwhile, her lawyers appealed to the Court of Appeal asking the court to decide, among other things, on the constitutionality of one parent being able to unilaterally convert their children.
The Court of Appeal agreed to allow the case to go straight to Federal Court, the highest court in the land, to decide the matter on the grounds that it will save time and effort as whatever its decision, one of the parties will appeal to the Federal Court anyway.
The Federal Court decided not to make a judgment on the constitutional issues as the mother and the children were now out of the country and therefore whatever it decides will come to naught as she is not within its jurisdiction.
The Federal Court judges made clear their displeasure that this woman had left the country in contempt of the court and was now seeking a decision from the very same court; something they were not going to do.
With all due respect to the court, I am of the opinion that this entire situation is the result of our courts as a whole steadily over the years abdicating their duty to protect the citizens’ rights as stated in the Federal Constitution.
And now using a technicality, albeit a legally sound one, they are once again side-stepping an important constitutional question.
Time and time again, we have seen our courts hide from their responsibility to uphold the Cons­titution whenever cases involving Islam appear.
They either do it by stating that such matters belong in the jurisdiction of the Syariah court, even though the Syariah court has no jurisdiction to answer questions regarding the Constitution, or they come out with a ruling like the High Court decision in this particular case.
The courts have lost track of the fact that this is a secular country and that its citizens have rights as stated in our secular constitution. They have bent over backwards, for reasons unknown, to allow Islamic matters to be above and beyond the limits placed within the Cons­titution.
In this way, they have ignored the fact that this country, being a multi-religious and secular one, needs a high degree of plurality in order to avoid injustice.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

Perfectly legal, but not necessarily good

Brave New World (The Star)
4 November 2010

Laws must be good and have an ethical foundation, for without such a foundation we can so easily slide into barbarism cloaked behind a thin veneer of legality.


A NATION ruled by law not men — a concept that demands our behaviour be determined by a set of principles and not by our own desires. As an ideal, it is a leveller, a protector, for at its core is the idea that power should not be abused.
Power takes many forms, some simple and base, whereas others are more complex. At its most simplistic level, a healthy 200lb, 6ft tall 20-year-old man is far more powerful than a frail 70-year-old pensioner.
This does not, however, give him the right to knock the old man down and rob him. There are laws against assault and theft.
But power is not merely about physical strength, it is also about authority. In a modern state, we give a lot of that authority to governments and government agencies. This is a necessity for governance in large complex societies.
What this means is that some ordinary men and women find themselves with tremendous power over their fellow citizens.
I can’t walk the streets with a pistol in my pocket, but every day I see men with guns. Usually they are directing traffic.
What is there to stop these armed men from pulling out their weapon and shooting someone? Absolutely nothing, except perhaps, their own conscience.
However, one can’t be overdependent on an individual’s moral compass, and so we have laws. And everyone is subject to these laws, even those — no, especially those — who have been given powers greater than the average citizen.
It ought to be remembered though that these laws must also be good laws. They must have an ethical foundation for, without such foundations, you have barbarism cloaked behind a thin veneer of legality.
Let us not forget, for example, that the atrocities of the Second World War committed by the Nazis on Jews and other people considered below their Aryan perfection, were perfectly legal according to the laws of Hitler’s Germany.
These were the thoughts that played on my mind upon reading the news of the last few days. The arrest and alleged beating of Selvach Santhiran on Oct 25, the very day that he testified against the police in the R. Gunasegaran death-in-custody case is very worrying indeed.
The police have arrested him under the country’s drug laws, but the close proximity between his testifying against them and his arrest is suspicious to say the least.
Furthermore, if his family’s allegations are true, why was there a need to beat the man in front of his children after he had been arrested and was no longer a physical threat?
The court had reached an open verdict on Gunasegaran’s case, meaning the judge was unable to conclude the reason for his death, despite the fact that three witnesses testified that he was beaten.
This judgment itself has been criticised, but it is what it is. S. Selvach had testified in a court of law, and the judge had made a decision. He had done nothing wrong and in fact had fulfilled a civic duty.
If his arrest had anything to do with his testimony, there is reason to be concerned. Concern for the apparent example of “rule by man”, and concern for the safety of the other two witnesses, Ravi Subramaniam and Suresh Subbaiah, who are also in police custody.
Another news item that caught my eye was the arrest of Teoh Lee Lan. She is the sister of the late Teoh Beng Hock and she was arrested along with some of her friends for distributing leaflets at Galas amid the by-election campaign.
She and her group, “Malaysians for Beng Hock,” have been campaigning hard to raise awareness about the case and to press that the truth be uncovered regarding Beng Hock’s tragic death two years ago while in the custody of the MACC.
Her arrest was made on the grounds that she broke election laws and was “campaigning” in a manner that was promoting feelings of ill-will. Whether these reasons are justifiable is extremely debatable as she was not representing any political party.
But what we see here is the use of a law to prevent a person from expressing her legitimate concerns.
If a law is used to favour one group over another, if it is not enforced in a neutral manner, then it is just as bad as having a poor law or no law at all and it will be yet another example of a nation ruled by men and not laws.
These examples are important to us as a nation because they show a disregard of the principle that I stated at the beginning of this column.
And this is a principle that has to be adhered to for it is a civilising ideal without which we can so easily slide into barbarism, and surely that is not something one would wish for one’s own country.

Turning rhetoric into reality

Brave New World (The Star)
21 October 2010

'I am talking about we citizens using the Asean Charter as one of our tools in the fight for human rights, rule of law and democracy.'


YOU may have heard of the Asean Charter, it is a treaty signed by all the members of Asean and it formally confirms that Asean is an international entity.
This means that Asean as an organisation now has legal “personality” on the international stage.
It can make treaties with nations and other international bodies.
It has international rights and obligations and it is bound by international laws and principles.
All this time, Asean has never been officially an international entity in its own right. It was a loose coalition of various countries with no legal personality of its own.
You can imagine it like an informal club. A group of buddies get together and form a club.
They have rules and they do things according to those rules. However, the club was never registered with the Registrar of Societies, so the club itself did not have any legal personality.
Thus, if a member of the club does something wrong to you, you can sue the member but you can’t sue the club because legally, the club does not exist as an entity which has rights and obligations.
This was what Asean was before the Charter was signed. Alright, this may be really exciting to students of international law, but I guess that if you are not, and if you are still reading at this point, you are probably thinking of turning the page to see how Spider-man and Iron Man are faring in their fight with the Puppet Master.
Before you do, let me explain that the Charter may well have a profound impact on our lives.
The Charter has a set of principles and Asean and its members are obliged to act in accordance with those principles.
Two of those principles are:
> Adherence to the rule of law, good governance, the principles of democracy and constitutional governance;
> Respect for fundamental freedom, the promotion and protection of human rights, and the promotion of social justice.
This means that our Government has agreed to live according to these principles.
Now, those with any knowledge of Asean would probably dismiss this document with a contemptuous wave of the hand, saying “Asean is weak and toothless and nothing will be done”.
There is plenty of justification in that cynicism for amongst the principles of the charter is also an emphatic confirmation that there will be no interference in the internal affairs of Asean members.
This is the famous “Asean way” in which they try hard not to step on each other’s toes, no matter how appalling the behaviour of their members.
But I am not thinking of Asean taking the initiative to make sure that the Malaysian government lives up to its principles.
I am talking about we citizens using this document as one of our tools in the fight for human rights, rule of law and democracy.
It is not interfering if we are campaigning within our countries. And campaign we must.
We must remind our government, no matter who they may be, that an international agreement has been signed, an international law has been agreed to, and it says that this government will abide to the principles of human rights, rule of law and democracy.
You can’t agree to such things and then pretend it does not exist.
Well, they may want to, but we can remind them that it does exist and we will push them to live up to those promises for they affect us the citizens.
Last week, there was an International Conference on Human Rights in South-east Asia, held by the South East Asian Human Rights Scholars Network (SEAHRN) in Bangkok. Dr Surin Pitsuwan, the Secretary General of Asean gave the opening keynote address and in it he said, “Those who toy with the rhetoric of human rights and democracy will have to live up to the standards of human rights and democracy in the end”.
Well, our government has been talking about it, let’s make sure that they don’t forget it and press them into turning the talk into something real.