Text of the keynote address by Edmund Bon Tai Soon delivered at The Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall’s 3rd Civil Society Award ceremony on 12 December 2011. BERSIH 2.0 ran out eventual winners with Save Malaysia, Stop Lynas Committee second and Pusat Komas third.
Ladies and gentlemen, friends and comrades, citizens and people of Malaysia.
I thought it important that we remind ourselves of the role, purpose and importance of the Federal Constitution by recalling parts of the speech of our first Yang Di-Pertuan Agong, Tuanku Abdul Rahman, when His Majesty opened the first Parliamentary session of Malaya on 12 September 1959:
It is the product of many minds working with a common aim, to evolve a basic charter for this new Malayan nation of ours – a charter drawn from our past experience and suited to the conditions of our surroundings and way of life – a charter of our firm faith in the concepts and traditions of parliamentary democracy – and finally, and most important of all, a charter of our common belief that certain fundamental liberties are essential to the dignity and self-respect of man.
These fundamental liberties are written into our Constitution. They include the liberty and equality of persons under the law, the basic freedom of speech and freedom of worship. The Constitution proclaims Islam as the official religion of the Federation and makes Malay the official language.
The Constitution assures the right to our subjects to worship in their own religions and to preserve their own languages and culture. It also confers citizenship on a wide category of persons who are prepared to make the Federation their home and the object of their loyalty.
This Constitution, unique in many ways, is a comprehensive declaration of duties and responsibilities, authority and prerogatives, affecting all organs of the State and all citizens of the land. In more symbolic terms it is the compass which will guide us through the unknown future.
In general, this Constitution vests Our office of Yang di-Pertuan Agong with executive authority on the advice of our Government; establishes Parliament as the maker of our laws; preserves the status and dignity of Our Brother-Rulers; defines the powers of the Federation Government and of the various States of our united nation; provides for amendment of the Constitution should this be found necessary; and asserts the electoral rights of citizens in our democracy. In this way it ensures that the voice of the people is the will of the people.
In particular, this Constitution is the guardian of the rule of law. It protects the integrity, the freedom from influence, and the independence of our Courts and our Judges and our Law Officers and the Members of our various Commissions of the Public Service, responsible for appointments and discipline. In this way it ensures the security, integrity and impartiality of the Civil Service.
The Constitution belongs to all of us – it belongs to Us as the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, it belongs to you as the Members of Parliament, it belongs to the people as the fount of power.
The Prime Minister, the members of his Cabinet, the Senators and the Members of the House of Representatives have all sworn that they bear true faith and allegiance to the Federation of Malaya and that they will preserve, protect and defend the Constitution.
Therefore, We wish all Our subjects on this historic day to know and understand that the Constitution of the Federation of Malaya, our charter of rights and liberties, is now, finally and completely, in operation and with the establishment of this Parliament under the Constitution, a new era begins for our nation.
It is Our earnest hope that as many as possible of Our subjects will take early opportunity to make themselves familiar with our Constitution, and with the powers and procedure of our Parliament.
Much has passed since. It is not for I to say, but for you to see how much has been eroded and how far we have strayed from the primary ideals of the Constitution.
The Constitution embodies in Part II a bill of rights termed “Fundamental Liberties”. In modern terms, they are known as “Human Rights”. The right to life, the right to freedom from slavery, the right to equality, the right to speech and expression, the right to assembly and association, the right to freedom of movement, the right to profess and practice our religion of choice, and the right to property.
Human rights are inherent in everyone, indivisible in essence and interdependent in its instrumentality. Right to adequate food, for example, cannot be separated from the right to housing, education, speech, assembly, association and the freedom from torture. Human rights sets out minimum benchmarks which every State must respect, protect and fulfill to her peoples because it is founded on the principles of equality, freedom, dignity, and formation of the holistic human person.
Therefore, when we speak about the challenges we face in respect of human rights in Malaysia, we see that in at least two key areas we have problems. First, the content of human rights. Second, the instrumentality of human rights.
The continued contestation of rights all over the world has been and is still about the precise nature, ambit and limit of human rights in our daily lives. Issues of public order, national security, religion and competing interests continue to be thrown up. This challenge is compounded in countries like ours where basic human rights and constitutional law education is not taught in schools save for a minor part of study when one is in Form 6, as I understand it to be.
Where the education of rights is poor or imperfect, many quarters and particularly the State will face less resistance from her peoples when rights are trampled on or are taken away. Why? Simply because our peoples do not know these rights exist for us in the first place and that we are able to fiercely assert these rights against State abuses. More mischievously, certain quarters would choose to distort the rights message, demonise the rights messengers and at times, by force, deny the freedom of the brave and courageous who choose to assert their rights.
In particular, there are some who disguise their inability to articulate sustained and reasoned opposition to rights demands by saying “human rights is political – there is a hidden agenda – they are agents of America and the Jews”. But of course. Of course, human rights is political. It is political because it speaks truth to power. It speaks its humane ideas to power. It seeks, by rights language, to address the imbalance and abuse of power by those who hold it. There is nothing to fear if one accepts that the struggle is a political one because politics, the influence of politics, and the good and ugly of political affairs affect our everyday lives. Never forget that. Thus, when some say that the constitutional liberties struggle is “political”, we will say yes it is. But when they say that because it is “political”, they will refrain from partaking in the struggle, it means that we have collectively failed to understand the significance and impact of our Constitution and what it gives us. And this goes back to my point about the non-education or mis-education of rights in our system.
Speaking rights to power has never been more difficult in our country when the majority of our peoples are – whether by design or accident – unconscious of their rights. I would call on the Government to take heed of the 1959 speech to introduce constitutional rights studies from Standard 1.
While we grapple with the idea of human rights, the second main challenge is in the implementation of our existing rights protected by our Constitution. Human rights are instruments for human civilisation and progress. Simplistically, if scientists, writers and philosophers were once not able to think, speak or act, we would not have the car, the telephone, the aeroplane, or Facebook today. Because rights are interdependent, freedom of speech, expression, assembly and association are instruments that serve to augment other rights like the right to adequate food, clean water, housing and education. Someone who is hungry would not be able to inform that he or she is hungry unless he or she is able to speak, and we are able to hear. One who is suffering cannot seek to alleviate the pain unless we know and are able to do something about it.
From this perspective, certain quarters including State-sponsored or outsourced State agents, continue in their attempts to make frontal attacks on these instruments of speech, expression, assembly and association because they do not like to hear, see and feel what we the peoples want them to hear, see and feel – the plight of our peoples’ suffering. When our instruments to channel our grievances – which are by themselves protected by the Constitution – are removed, the peoples will be silenced.
It comes as no surprise that while general elections loom, the Government introduces the Peaceful Assembly Bill and rushes its passing without proper consultation and despite widespread opposition to the Bill. We remind ourselves that it was in 2008 that the party Barisan Nasional suffered unprecedented losses at both Federal and State levels following mass rallies starting with the lawyers’ Walk For Justice in September 2007, then BERSIH, HINDRAF and others such as GMI’s anti-ISA protests. That the Bill seeks to ban what is nefariously called “street protests” should not shock.
The answer to protecting our rights is in the vote, some say. We should not be overly concerned with this statement if only our process of elections is free and fair, and the Election Commission (EC) plays its proper constitutional role under Articles 113 and 114 of the Constitution. But we have seen much, nay, too much, read much, nay, too much, to be able to say comfortably that the cornerstone of our democratic process is now not the most credible. To this extent, the Parliamentary Select Committee on electoral reforms (PSC) has been formed and is underway in its work. We must support all attempts at reform bearing in mind that Article 119 is a constitutional guarantee to all eligible voters to choose a government of the peoples’ choice. But even then many are still disenfranchised from the process through ignorance, choice or systemic institutional failure and neglect by the EC.
An independent EC must be our aspiration but to date what we have seen is a Commission beholden to the Government of the day. Recent statements about wanting to wait on the Government’s response to the PSC’s interim report regarding the use of indelible ink and registering overseas voters are clear indications. The EC has failed to understand that it is an independent constitutional institution under the Constitution accountable only to the King.
I end by saying that the message of today must be that while we honour activists and groups who continue in their struggle to speak rights to power, the work has not ended. The struggle must continue. The nominees and recipients do not receive honour for themselves but on behalf of all of their co-workers, partners and more importantly, for each and every one of us, citizens of Malaysia. They do not receive honour for themselves but for the cause in being vigilant and active in seeking to improve the lives of all of us. To them and all of you committed to continue in this selfless, thankless struggle – the task of upholding our rights – a task most necessary in human history and especially so in the context of our country today, we salute you.
A day must come when there should no longer be any need for these awards, or for the existence of NGOs or civil society movements such as LoyarBurok, MyConstitution and UndiMsia! When that day comes we can pat ourselves on the back knowing that we have a State that is truly and sincerely performing its constitutional duty in actuality respecting, protecting and fulfilling the constitutional rights of her peoples. We must strive towards that end.
Thank you, and keep the fire burning!