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.

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