Face to Face Interview with Edmund Bon

Imran Imtiaz Shah Yacob is a trained lawyer and Malaysian political commentator. He writes for numerous international newspapers and online journals as well as hosts “Face to Face – A Reason for Discourse”, an interview segment on Malaysian/regional issues and personalities on Malaysia Today. He serves as a foreign correspondent for foreign news organisations. He spoke to Edmund Bon Tai Soon and the interview was published here on 25 September 2008. Reproduced below is Imtiaz Shah Yacob’s interview with Edmund Bon, with minor editorial amendments.EdmundBon_Portrait

Edmund Bon Tai Soon is the Chairperson of the Bar Council’s Human Rights Committee and a Secretariat member of the human rights organisation, Suaram. Face to Face gets the opinion of this young lawyer in another no-holds barred interview.

(The following are Edmund’s personal views and do not necessarily represent those of the Bar Council.)

1. Let’s get straight into the issues. Many Muslim/Malay groups have no sympathy for MP Theresa Kok as evidenced by recent events reported in the Malay broadsheets. She has played the race card before…Thus, care to comment on her recent ISA release?

I welcome her release. She should not have been detained in the first place. It was not very smart of the Government to detain her particularly when she won with the highest majority of votes. She is a dedicated MP and the people love her. What was the Government thinking? It was a crazy move. But when the Government tries to be seen championing an agenda based on racial lines, it becomes blinded to such considerations.

The bigger picture is that it is fundamentally wrong to detain a person without trial, and the ISA should be repealed. Everyone in Kamunting should be released immediately or prosecuted before a court of law if they are alleged to have committed a crime. The detentions of Teresa, Tan and RPK merely confirm what civil society has feared all along. The Government is inept in managing popular dissent and race relations. Many people have also told me that these detentions are influencing foreign investors. They are repelled by what is happening and keeping their money in their pockets. Who is the real threat to our national economy?

2.What about the detention of Raja Petra Kamaruddin (RPK) and popular blogger Sheih Kickdefella (since released)?

The Government cannot try to control the internet. Don’t try to do the impossible. You close down one site, another ten will spring up. You lock up one blogger, the entire blogging community including Tun Mahathir gets angry. Why wage this type of battle? Deal with the arguments raised, and engage them on the internet. Counter critical speech with more speech. Show why some of the comments you are not happy about are illogical or nonsensical. But surely allow cyberspace to be as free as possible.

3. A handful of bloggers are getting together to fight against the arrests of RPK and others. There appears to be a measure of unity against this crackdown. What about the lawyers

Not all bloggers and lawyers think alike. There are many different views in the blogosphere and the legal fraternity. It is a sign of a maturing democracy that we can talk about stuff usually deemed sensitive freely on the net.

The majority of lawyers see the injustices which are going on and feel that we need to do something about it – whether they are sympathisers of BN or PR. Many want to go to the streets again, and I have received many strongly worded statements asking why the Bar is not going out to protest. Do we want to do it? Should we do it?

Lawyers look at the issues and we are issue-centric. That’s why you see so many rising up. It is not something new for the Bar. Our tradition has always been to fight injustice and remedy problems through the legal and judicial process.

4. The Bar Council is perceived to be anti-Islam and pro non-Malay interest. Comment?

The Malaysian Bar is made up of more than 12,600 lawyers from the Peninsular. About 39% are Malays, 36% Chinese, 23% Indians and 1- 2% of other ethnic groups. We have 36 elected members to the Bar Council from the whole country. There is a balanced mix of different ethnic groups and religions. I cannot understand it when people say we are anti-Islam and pro-non Malays. It is deceit of the highest kind. We always look at the problems faced by society then decide a position to adopt based on human rights or humanitarian considerations, and we advocate it fearlessly. This is based on thorough research, and continuous discourse and arguments.

For example, the ISA which we oppose on principle. We have been visiting and representing detainees held in Kamunting for being JI members, and they are as pro-Islam as you can ever get. They can recite the Quran and even preach to the religious officers who come to the camp and try to talk about Islam with them! Would we do it if we were anti-Islam? Is the Government anti-Islam when they detain Muslims?

We have buka puasa events which I believe are the only religious events on our calendar. We have a Syariah Law Committee and Islamic Finance Committee specially to cater for the needs of those who require our assistance and expertise on these matters. We even have a Bahasa Melayu Committee to increase the use of and improve the standard of our national language.

Tell me one instance where we have attacked any ethnic group or religion. When issues in play in the public realm enact suffering on Malaysians, we are duty-bound to speak out and try to stop the suffering. We can justify every statement we have made. Those who attack us in the name of race or religion are the ones who should be questioned. Is there a hidden agenda?

It is disheartening to hear these allegations against us. But I am really glad that more and more Muslims are speaking out against these attacks. Some usually apathetic members have had enough of this. You will see on our website Malay and Muslim members hitting out strongly at for example, Utusan Malaysia and Malay political leaders as they try to spin the Bar as being anti-Islam and anti-Malay.

The Bar will keep fighting back and correct the misperception. Those who make these allegations should engage us in a debate and support their stand. I am sure they won’t be able to.

Look at our membership on Council. Are you saying that our former Presidents Raja Aziz Addruse, Zainur Zakaria, Hendon Mohamed, Sulaiman Abdullah and Kuthubul Zaman Bukhari are anti-Islam? Are you saying that the current crop of Council members such as Yasmeen Shariff, Hisyam Teh Poh Teik, Sukri Mohamed, Shafee Abdullah, Syed Azimal Amir and Anuwar Mohd are also anti-Islam? An attack on the Bar Council is an attack on each of the 36 members of the Council, and on the lawyers we represent.

5. Lee Kuan Yew slammed the Singapore Law Society and diminished its role. Francis Seow – its Past President was eventually detained under the Internal Security Act in a face-off with the government. Today, the Singapore Law Society does not delve into political nor sensitive issues these days. Can’t say the same for the Malaysian Bar Council that seems to be playing politics. Comment?

The Council does not play politics in the sense of political partisanship. The Bar is always willing to work with the Government, Opposition and others to achieve common aims. As I said before, those who accuse the Bar of political partisanship should justify their stand. The Government and the politicians who fear what we can do and dislike what we say do not address our arguments. It’s far simpler for them to take the populist approach and brand us as being racist, anti-Islam and political. But I don’t think these attacks are working very well any longer. People have matured.

I think part of the problem stems from a misunderstanding of the Bar’s role and the place of politics in our lives. We should not confuse political causes with supporting political parties. The aim of politics is to promote the foundation of a good life and its superior end is freedom. Political causes attempt to bring about change by balancing the power equation between the Government and citizens. Agitating for an improvement in the administration of justice, legal reform and human rights is a political cause. Those who advocate these causes do not necessarily become political parties.

Secondly, politics affects every person’s life. Let us not pretend that lawyers and the profession are immune from politics and its effect on our lives and work.

So while the Bar always remains neutral in so far as political partisanship is concerned, it cannot be indifferent to issues such as Executive attacks on the rule of law and rights abuses. It just so happens that governments are the biggest violators of human rights, and we have to speak out on these matters. We cannot be quiet.

6.  There are grouses that the Bar Council is not doing much for its members and have instead concentrated its efforts on other things. What would you say in defence?

There is so much that the Bar Council is continuously doing to improve the welfare of lawyers. We just don’t boast about it. There are many who ask us to do more and we try. Members should keep giving constructive recommendations and we always do our best to implement them where possible. The problem is that our resources are stretched in terms of funds and human power, and we encourage members to be part of our 34 committees to effect faster and greater changes.

Members also have the ability to change the Council by electing those who will work in their best interests. If they are not happy, members should exercise their right to vote wisely. Because the Bar Council is only seen and heard on public interest issues frequently, people forget that the Council meets every month with stacks and stacks of documents to consider and make decisions in the interests of the members. Members don’t see this enough.

I understand that our duty is to create better conditions both within the Bar and outside of it for lawyers and the rule of law to prosper, and we are always working towards this. When the Council speaks about the administration of justice and law reform, surely these issues are equally important to ensure our members are able to practice comfortably and independently in a professional setting where public confidence in our system is high. Isn’t this something we all want?

7. The definition of human rights taken from western/individual centric intellection as opposed to the rights of the many over the individual is not accepted in the rest of the world. What do you believe in?

Should a person who comes from Asia be given less or different rights than a person from Europe? Do human rights depend on where you stay on the globe? Detention without trial in Guantanamo surely is as abhorrent as detention without trial in Kamunting is it not? This argument of cultural relativism cannot be sustained. The strongest proponents of the “Asian values” perspective – Tun Mahathir and Lee Kuan Yew – have tried to use this rhetoric to cover their misuse and abuse of power.

People aren’t fooled by this anymore. Many Arab states have accepted international rights norms such as evidenced by the Arab Charter on Human Rights in 2004.

Malaysia is a member of the UN, and we sit on the UN Human Rights Council. We are bound by international human rights norms and standards. There are no two ways about it. If we want to be part of this international order, we need to subscribe to the legal principles of the order and actually practice them. All Malaysians have a legitimate expectation that the Government will adhere to principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

8. The Deoxyribonucleic Acid (DNA) Identification Bill 2008 currently undergoing its second reading in Parliament has come under much flak. What’s your stand and tell us about some of these alleged flaws in the said Bill?

Too many to name. The Human Rights Committee has highlighted many already. Many MPs agree with our views. The intention of the Bill may be good but it comes at a time when our Judiciary and law enforcement agencies are weak. There are justified concerns about their independence and accountability. Not many trust what they hear or read about these institutions, no matter how noble some of the public statements made may sound. There is a danger that the DNA law will be used to lynch the innocent while the hands of the courts are tied.

9. It’s clear now that Anwar Ibrahim’s so-called crossover to topple the government has come to naught. Many question his credibility and sincerity. Comment?

Many people have asked why there has been no change in Government. I don’t know why. But perhaps the people should have voted at the last elections to change the Government. Why did this not happen?

Either way, I understand that the people’s resentment of the present Government is so deep today and its runs across ethnic and religious lines. Many are excited because this is the first time that a change may really happen after 51 years. We cannot blame the people for feeling this way, but as lawyers, we realise that it is not so easy to change the Government. The constitutional and legal process must take its course and be exhausted. If it really happens, it must be a peaceful transition. The monarchy and the military must be comfortable with it.

10. Pakatan Rakyat is demanding for an emergency session to be convened at Parliament to force a no-confidence motion against the PM. What’s the merit in this move?

It is up to the PM. Wouldn’t it be an avenue to end the political uncertainties for the benefit of the nation?

11. Speculation is rife about the Prime Minister under pressure from many quarters to resign. What’s your take?

The PM is probably the best Opposition leader the country has seen. There are many reasons why things happen, and it is not down to only one factor.

12. It appears, but may not necessarily be the case that Najib Razak is on the ascent to the PM’s hot seat. Opinion?

This is internal to UMNO. Our nation needs to become more civilised quickly. Opportunities are always given to new leaders of UMNO and the BN to step up to the plate. In 2004, the PM had a huge mandate and a huge support. What has happened since? Are we to be taken for another long ride again?

13. Can UMNO successfully restructure itself?

I don’t know. I just believe that UMNO does not speak for the majority of the Malays anymore, especially the poor and needy ones.

14. The Wall Street Journal (18th September 2008, Pak Lah’s Economic Reckoning) pronounced a damning report on the state of Malaysia’s economy and gave the thumbs down on PM’s political report card. What’s your assessment?

There is no doubt that the political uncertainties here are affecting all of us and the economy. But who are the instigators? And who can solve the problems? The Bar has continually cautioned that the weakening of the rule of law and the degeneration of our institutions such as the Judiciary will be bad for business and competition. That is evident.

Malaysians are now paying the price for what Tun Mahathir did to this country but not surprisingly, he appears to be quite forgetful these days. He only remembers the good times under his regime. We should not delude ourselves into thinking as if all this is happening only because of March 8 or the current administration. Long-term but slow retrogressive measures taken to stifle civil liberties have allowed an authoritarian regime to reign, and today the dissatisfaction among the people is at its height. Unfortunately, it will probably get worse before the state of the nation gets better.

15. Any message for the Rakyat?

The people must realise the important role that they play in the political process. All the years of apathy and self-censorship has led us to this. The generations before us who kept returning a Government which has sought to keep us fearful for our lives must take some blame.

We must continue to fight abuses and injustice, and persevere.

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Posted on 30 January 2009. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0.

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2 Responses to Face to Face Interview with Edmund Bon

  1. Pingback: The Conversation | LoyarBurok

  2. Yvonne Young

    During the reign of Dr. M, the media was tightly controlled by the main political party. The past generations were ill-informed as to their rights. Furthermore, well-fed people are afraid of starvation. Hence, rarely anyone dares to oppose the government for fear of losing the rice bowl. Still, we have daring ones like Karpal Singh and Lim Kit Siang.

    Now that cyberspace is unstoppable, Malaysians are better informed and more heroes have emerged.