Call on Bar Council to initiate a five-month nation-wide  debate on how  to restore human rights and the rule of law culminating in a parliamentary debate as the first item of parliamentary business when Abdullah takes over as fifth Prime Minister at the end of October

Bar Council Human Rights Training Programme on “Promotion of Human Rights Through Parliamentary Process”
by Lim Kit Siang

(PenangSunday): Two motion I moved in Parliament some a quarter of a century ago are  eloquent testimony of the abysmal record of Parliament in promoting human rights. 

Twenty-six years ago, on October 26, 1977, I moved  a motion in Parliament to ratify the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights  (ICCPR) 1966.   What were the reasons for rejecting the motion? The then Foreign Minister, Tengku Rithaudeen, claimed that the human rights contained in the ICCPR were already respected in Malaysia and there was no need to ratify the Covenant. 

Other Barisan Nasional MPs who spoke in the debate were not so circumspect. One denounced the ICPCR as unacceptable to Malaysia, while another warned that there would be another May 13 riots in the country if the ICPCR was ratified. 

This brought my rejoinder during the winding-up of the debate: “The threat of May 13 to silence reason and argument in the Dewan Rakyat has been used for too long.  Every time the Opposition presses the people’s issues, and the National front is unable to counter with better arguments, threats of May 13 are resorted to.” 

Although the motion to ratify the ICPCR  was rejected, I called for the establishment of a Human Rights Commission when  winding up the debate – which bore fruition 22 years later with the establishment of the Human Rights Commission (Suhakam)  in 1999, and which in its first Annual Report 2000, called for the ratification of  a trio of international instruments, the ICCPR,  the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) and the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (CAT). 

In the second instance, I moved a motion 24 years ago on June 28, 1979 to end the perpetual state of permanent multiple emergency in the country and to  annul  the four proclamations of emergency as the conditions which gave rise to their proclamation had long ceased to exist, viz: 

(i)        the 39-year-old  emergency proclamation of 3rd September 1964  to deal with Sukarno’s “Crush Malaysia” campaign – although  the Indonesian Confrontation ended nearly four decades ago in 1966,  and Sukarno as well as his three succeeding Presidents,  Suharto, Habibe and Abdurrahman Wahid having  left the political  scene with Sukarno’s   daughter,  Megawati Sukarnoputri now  the  fifth Indonesian President.

(ii)        The 37-year-old proclamation of 14th September 1966 applicable only to Sarawak in order to resolve a state political crisis to topple the first Sarawak Chief Minister, Stephen Kalong Ningkan of SNAP.

(iii)       The 34-year-old  emergency proclamation of 14th May 1969

(iv)       The 26-year-old emergency proclamation of 8th November 1977 to resolve another state political crisis to topple the PAS state government of  Kelantan. 

Out of these four emergency proclamations, only two were justified by the grave emergency conditions of the times, namely the Indonesian Confrontation and the May 13 riots, as the other two to resolve state political crisis in Sarawak and Kelantan were misuse of emergency powers for political gain. 

Be that as it may, all the four sets of conditions giving rise to the four proclamations of emergency have long ceased to exist, and there could be no justification for their prolongation, placing Malaysia in a perpetual state of multiple state of emergency. 

The motion was defeated and the reasons advanced by Barisan Nasional MPs for rejecting it included: 

  • Only the disloyal and irresponsible groups in the country who want to see chaos and bloodshed want the proclamations of emergency annulled;
  • The proclamations were still needed to protect the New Economic Policy or to  deal with the problems of drug abuse, the Vietnamese illegal immigrants or the security situation in Southeast Asia.

This led to my following outburst in the winding up of the motion: 

“Frankly, I have never felt so sorry for the august Chamber that Parliament is meant to be.  If illiterate, untaught and unschooled people talk nonsense about constitutional provisions or parliamentary responsibilities, this is understandable, because they have no opportunity to inform or educate themselves about these matters. 

“But when Members of Parliament come to Parliament and talk nonsense about constitutional provisions and parliamentary responsibilities, showing them no better than the most illiterate, untaught and unschooled, then I say this is not only most shocking, but brings Parliament into disrepute and contempt in the eyes of the people.” 

Has there been any appreciable change in the role of Parliament in promoting human rights in the nineties and  the 21st century? 

The last time I spoke in Parliament on the four proclamations of emergency was in July 1999, during  the debate on the Human Rights Commission Bill to establish Suhakam where I stressed that human rights had been the greatest victim of the culture of political hegemony of the ruling coalition in the four decades of nationhood, and in particular the two-decade premiership of Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad. 

 I stressed that so long as the arsenal of repressive and draconian laws like the Internal Security Act, the Sedition Act, the Official Secrets Act, the Police Act and  the Printing Presses and Publications Act remain on the statute books, there is no way Suhakam could effectively protect and promote human rights – a forecast which had been borne out by the three years of operation of Suhakam.   

This is in fact the reason why human rights, the rule of law and democracy are worse off today than when Mahathir became Prime Minister because his premiership of the past 22 years had seen already repressive and draconian laws become even more repressive and draconian. 

In another five months, there will be a change of Prime Minister. The  Bar Council should initiate a five-month nation-wide  debate on how  to restore human rights and the rule of law culminating in a parliamentary debate as the first item of parliamentary business when Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi  takes over as fifth Prime Minister at the end of October. 

This should be part of a more activist and dynamic role by the Bar Council and civil society to monitor and pressure  Parliament to play a more effective role to protect and promote human rights. 

If Malaysia had a truly independent judiciary, the laws passed by the current Parliament run the risk of being declared unlawful, null and void because the  tenth Parliament elected in the  November 1999 general election had not been convened in accordance with the Constitution, making all its proceedings unconstitutional and invalid. 

The first meeting of the tenth Parliament was summoned by a royal proclamation on 9th December 1999, but this proclamation was defective as under the Constitution, the Yang di Pertuan Agong acts on the advice of the Cabinet, which was formed and held its first meeting only on Dec. 15, 1999. 

I had in January 2000 consulted two jurists  who had held the highest judicial office of the land, former Lord Presidents the late Tun Suffian and Tun Salleh Abas, on the advisability of challenging the constitutionality of the Parliamentary meetings and validity of its enactments and decisions. While both agreed that the convening of the 10th Parliament was unconstitutional rendering all its subsequent acts unlawful, both advised against instituting any court challenge -  a sad commentary on the state of the system of justice in Malaysia at the time! 

Important areas where the tenth Parliament had failed to protect and promote  human rights in the past 40 months include: 

  • Failure to provide effective oversight over the work of Suhakam and to debate a single one of the eight Suhakam reports which had been released  in the past three years – the three Suhakam annual reports and its five special reports.
  • Establish a  just rule of law and a truly independent judiciary.  Former Chief Justice of the Federal Court, Tun Mohamad Dzaiddin had stopped the rot in the system of justice but he had not been able to put in place before his retirement structural judicial reforms  to lay down the conditions to restore full public confidence in the independence of the judiciary, concerning matters such as  judicial appointments, judicial accountability and a meaningful code of ethical  conduct, etc.  The right to justice is a precondition to the protection and promotion of human rights and this is why the intimate relationship between human rights and the rule of law is highlighted in the preample of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which said:

“Whereas it is essential, if man is not to be compelled to have resource, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppresson, that human rights should be protected by the rule of law.” 

  • Press freedom – dismal ranking of Malaysia’s press freedom in the international arena not only by American advocacy groups but also by the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders which placed Malaysia in 110th position out of 139 countries, lower than many countries whose per capita GNP is only one-tenth that of Malaysia.
  • Abuse of ISA, as in the detention of the reformasi six,  Tian Chua,  Mohamad Ezam, Saari Sungib, Lokman Noor Adam, Dr Badrul Amin and Hishamuddin Rais despite the unanimous judgment of the Federal Court last September ruling that the police had acted mala fides for political reasons unrelated to national security in arresting them under the ISA and  the recommendations for their release by the  ISA Advisory Board and Suhakam.

Let me conclude by making a plea. Today is the Countdown Day Seven  for the  reformasi five: Tian Chua, Saari Sungib, Lokman Noor Adam, Dr Badrul Amin and Hishamuddin Rais  – whether they walk out of Kamunting Detention Centre as free men on June 1 or they will continue to be shackled to the  Kamunting detention centre  with their  two-year  ISA detention order extended by another two years. 

I would urge the Bar Council  in particular  and  lawyers generally in the country  to speak out loud and clear in these crucial few days of the  Countdown to make their voices heard loud and clear for the end of the ISA detention of the reformasi six and that there should not be any  extension of their ISA detention which would be  grossly inhumane by subjecting them and their families to  double jeopardy and double injustices – bearing in mind the triple objections to their  ISA detention by the Federal Court, the ISA Advisory Board and Suhakam.


* Lim Kit Siang, DAP National Chairman