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Let’s do this the BARU way!

Ambiga Sreenevasan  |  Published:  |  Modified:

COMMENT | While we celebrate Malaysia Baru this Merdeka, a remark of a lawyer friend of mine gave me pause. On a recent visit to a prison to see a client, she observed prisoners being treated in a most degrading manner. “Where is Malaysia Baru?” she asked, “because it looks like business as usual in places of detention”.

Today, reports about the plight of the Orang Asli in Gua Musang drew the same lament. So did the child marriage fiasco and the caning of the two girls in Terengganu. We must not forget that as we continue our discussions on making this a more humane society, human suffering continues unabated.

What then can be done to hasten this process, especially for those who need it the most? First, let me congratulate the new government on the many positive developments since the elections. Missteps are inevitable, and there have been a few, but what I see is a government that prioritises integrity and is meeting the numerous challenges of cleaning up the Ministries with hard work and dedication.

There are many areas of reform that can and should be implemented immediately. I would like to touch on a few to highlight the continuing effects of failing to implement the reform agenda quickly.

Oppressive legislation

There is a myriad of oppressive legislation in this country, some of which are archaic leftovers from our colonial past. The circumstances and the context for the enactment of such laws have changed since then.

The Sedition Act was enacted in 1948, the Official Secrets Act (OSA) in 1972. Both have no place in a progressive society in 2018.

The death penalty was enacted to address the serious crimes of murder and drug trafficking. But the evidence shows it has done nothing to reduce these crimes.

There is also an alphabet soup of new preventive detention laws, which replaced the Internal Security Act and still contain elements which violate the basic tenets of the rule of law. These include Sosma, Pota and Poca to name a few.

No-one is proposing that the security of the nation be compromised in any way. I do, however, question the justification of Malaysia having more oppressive laws than countries who face greater terror threats than we do.
It is, of course, easier to lock people up without sufficient evidence, and without judicial oversight citing ‘national security’.

And it will surely be difficult to remove the immense powers that have been granted to the authorities. But if the rule of law is to be respected, then a balance must be struck between the nation’s security and the rights of an individual to access to justice.

In fact, the rule of law becomes more important, the more you seek to deprive an individual of their fundamental liberties. It is a moral compass that will ensure that safeguards are in place.

Paranoia and stifling dissent

Another category of laws that we must look at are laws passed more recently like the Anti Fake News Act, (which has thankfully been repealed), and the National Security Council Act.

Oppressive laws are enacted by authoritarian regimes who want to stifle dissent and are paranoid about losing power. The Pakatan Harapan government is not authoritarian. Neither is there any basis for paranoia. Harapan has come in with a resounding victory and must show confidence that they are not afraid of bringing real change.

I must admit my disappointment when I heard the prime minister state quite categorically that the OSA will stay. The OSA is the perfect legislation for a government to hide their wrongdoing and has in fact been so used by the previous government. The Harapan government, coming in on a platform of transparency, must do away with this Act.

State secrets must, of course, be protected, but the OSA goes too far and is open to abuse.

Let us keep in mind the following examples of continuing human rights abuses and then reflect if reform can be delayed any longer:

  • An estimated 1,500 people are on death row with many having been there for years waiting for sentences to be carried out
  • People held in detention continue to suffer appalling conditions and inhumane and degrading treatment on a daily basis
  • Detentions without trial continue including many which cannot be legally justified
  • The marginalised Orang Asli carry on their battle for their ancestral lands against the might of federal and state agencies
  • Child marriages continue
  • Corporal punishments continue
  • Deaths in custody continue

Public consultation

All reform proposals must go through a public consultation process. I must disclose that I was a member of the Institutional Reforms Committee (IRC). My remarks are however general in nature.

The prime minister recently stated that the report of the Council of Eminent Persons (CEP) will not be disclosed. Whilst it is understandable why the CEP report ought not to be disclosed due to sensitive economic and other information, the same should not apply to the IRC report.

We must all remember that the Harapan government came in by virtue of the will of the people who saw that change was imperative to save our beloved nation. We must have faith in them. Let the people be part of this process of change. I believe they have earned that right.

Moreover, it is critical for us to get public feedback as the committee may have missed an angle or an idea that may enhance the recommendations.
The government may then take into account all views and make the final decision.

The government must get used to the idea of public consultation and must not slide into the bad habit of thinking that only they know best.

We must do things differently in our Malaysia now. A discussion on reform is imperative if we are to uplift the lives of the people meaningfully.

Out with the “lama” way of doing things. Happy Merdeka and Salam Malaysia Baru!


AMBIGA SREENEVASAN was a former Bar Council chairperson.

The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.

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