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FOCUS December 2001 Volume 26

Human Rights Commission - The Malaysian Scenario*

Chiam Heng Keng

On 24 April 2000, four months after the dawn of a new millennium, three former high court judges, three former politicians, three professors, a medical doctor, an environmentalist, a female activist and a former State Secretary received letters of appointment as Human Rights Commissioners from the King of Malaysia. The Chairperson of this newly-appointed thirteen-member group is Tan Sri Dato' Musa Hitam, who served as the Chairperson of the 52nd session of UN Commission on Human Rights in 1995. The speed at which the Commissioners were appointed surprised quite a few as the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia Act was only gazetted on 9 September 1999.

A Bill to establish the Human Rights Commission was tabled at the July 1999 sitting of the Malaysian Parliament. It was passed without any dissenting voice, implying that even the Opposition agreed to the establishment of a Human Rights Commission in Malaysia. However, the tabling of the Human Rights Bill was not without suspicion and critics. Some questioned the government's motive, being unaware that the idea of Malaysia having its own national human rights institution was mooted by Tan Sri Musa Hitam in 1994 when Malaysia was elected to serve on the UN Commission on Human Rights. Perhaps being elected to serve a second term on the UN Commission on Human Rights (1996-1998) provided the impetus to the government to consider Tan Sri Musa Hitam's suggestion seriously. In addition, the success of the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna drew international attention to the importance of national human rights institutions.

Human Rights Commission of Malaysia Act

Suruhanjaya Hak Asasi Manusia Malaysia (Human Rights Commission of Malaysia), which is better known in Malaysia by its acronym SUHAKAM, was established under the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia Act 1999, Act 597 (Act). The functions of SUHAKAM as set out in section 4(1) are:

  1. To promote awareness of and provide education in relation to human rights;<
  2. To advise and assist government in formulating legislation and administrative directives and procedures and recommend the necessary measures to be taken;
  3. To recommend to the government with regard to the subscription or accession of treaties and other international instruments in the field of human rights;
  4. To inquire into complaints regarding infringements of human rights.

Four working groups were formed to carry out these functions. The Education Working Group is headed by Professor Dr. Chiam Heng Keng, a social psychologist and educationist attached to the University of Malaya while Ms. Mehrun Siraj, a former professor of law, heads the Law Reform Working Group. Dato Mahadev Shankar, a former Judge, chairs the International Treaty Working Group, whereas the Complaint and Inquiry Working Group is headed by Tan Sri Dato' Hj Anuar Hj Zainal Abidin, a retired Chief Judge.

SUHAKAM has the power to inquire, on its own motion, into allegations of infringements of human rights, in addition to acting on complaints submitted to it. SUHAKAM, however, may not investigate complaints that are subject of proceedings pending in a court of law or which have been finally decided by any court. Investigations have to cease if the subject matter of a complaint is brought to court.

The Act also provides SUHAKAM with powers to enable it to discharge its functions effectively. Under the section 4(2), the Commission is empowered to do the following:

  1. To undertake research by conducting programs, seminars and workshops and to disseminate and distribute the results of such research;
  2. To advise the government and/or the relevant authorities of complaints against them and to recommend appropriate measures to be taken;
  3. To study and verify any infringement of human rights;
  4. To visit places of detention in accordance with procedures as prescribed by laws relating to the places of detention and to make necessary recommendations;
  5. To issue public statements on human rights as and when necessary;
  6. To undertake appropriate activities as are necessary.

Activities

The Commissioners felt that a good logo is needed to give SUHAKAM an easily recognizable identity. Hence one of the first tasks of the Education Working Group was to organize a logo competition. As this competition could also promote awareness of human rights among school children, the competition had three categories, namely, primary school students, secondary school students and the public. The simple but rather distinctive SUHAKAM logo is the winning entry submitted by Mr. Yunos bin Onn, an architect.

In 2000, in conjunction with the World Human Rights Day, an essay competition with the theme, "Human Rights for All" for secondary school students was held. But in 2001, SUHAKAM decided to declare September 9 as the Malaysian Human Rights Day. A two-day Forum, "Human Rights of the Disabled," and one-day seminar, "Human Rights and the Media," were organized to celebrate this occasion.

The Malaysian public appeared to be very keen to know about human rights and the functions of SUHAKAM, particularly in its first year of existence. Hence, in 2000 the Commissioners were kept busy as speakers at forums, seminars and conferences. They were also invited to give talks to the public, government employees, university students and the private sector. Several Commissioners were also invited by television stations to discuss or debate on human rights issues. Besides issuing statements as required by the Act, the Commissioners also gave press interviews.

Holding dialogue with government ministries znd departments, non-governmental organizations, political parties, the media, religious bodies and disadvantaged groups is one of the ways SUHAKAM uses to assess people's awareness of human rights, gauge human rights practices in organizations, promote awareness of human rights to target groups, and exchange viewpoints. SUHAKAM had road shows at several States for the same purposes as the dialogues.

In addition to enhancing awareness of human rights through informal channels, SUHAKAM is also promoting human rights through formal means. Currently, SUHAKAM is working on human right education modules for the training of police officers, and human rights education in schools.

The Law Reform Working Group has identified areas of human rights and laws that are in need of review, in particular the right to peaceful assembly and the rights of remand prisoners. A booklet on the freedom of assembly has been printed. Members of the Law Reform Working Group had visited prisons, remand centers, police lock-ups, immigration detention centers and juvenile reform schools. They also visited those detained under the Internal Security Act.

A workshop on young prisoners was held recently to discuss problems faced by them. A report on this workshop had been prepared.

Up to date, SUHAKAM has received 5,230 complaints, 458 were lodged by Malaysians while the rest were made by people outside Malaysia. The vast majority of foreign complaints were on same issues but were submitted by different bodies and persons. The breakdown of the complaints according to year and type of complaints is given in Tables 1 and 2.

Table 1

Complaints According to Year

Year

April-Dec 2000

Jan-Nov 2001

Local complaints

152

306

Foreign complaints

338

4,434

Total

490

4,740


Table 2

Breakdown of January-November 2001 Complaints by Categories

Complaints relating to

Total

Government

169

Private sector

41

Individual

69

Public statements

27

Total

306


Table 3

Actions Taken by SUHAKAM

Year

April-Dec 2000

Jan-Nov 2001

Settled/failed

78

122

KIV1)

8

21

Pending

66

163

Total

152

306

SUHAKAM has so far conducted one open inquiry. It investigated the police handling of an assembly that did not have a police permit. This inquiry is known as the Kesas Highway Incident.

Until December 2001, SUHAKAM had received twenty-five memoranda. On the basis of four memoranda alleging infringement of human rights of certain groups of indigenous people of Sarawak, in particular their customary land rights, SUHAKAM sent a team of three Commissioners and an officer to visit the places where the infringement occurred. The preliminary report is being prepared as the investigation continues.


Reflections

I would like to numerate some of our achievements before discussing a number of problems encountered. Nationally, a number of changes pertaining to human rights have taken place that SUHAKAM is directly or indirectly responsible for. Article 8 (2) of Part II of the Federal Constitution has been amended to include gender as a prohibited ground for discrimination. In addition, widows who remarry can now continue to receive their late husbands' pension. Although Malaysia has ratified the Convention on the Rights of the Child, primary education was universal but not compulsory. The Education Act is soon to be amended to make primary education compulsory for all. Active steps are now being taken to ensure that juvenile prisoners are separated from adult prisoners and are housed in different buildings. At the recent seminar on young prisoners organized by SUHAKAM, the move is toward making the prison terms of juvenile offenders rehabilitative rather than punitive. Even the Minister of National Unity and Social Development, in her Opening Address in the workshop, made this appeal. Conditions in police lock-ups are improving and ways are sought to reduce overcrowding.

SUHAKAM has, on two occasions, demonstrated that peaceful assembly is possible if the people act responsibly and the members of the police are restrained and kept at a respectable distance from the people. Although the members of the police were very upset with the outcome of SUHAKAM's inquiry into the Kesas Highway Incident, nonetheless there appears to be some changes in their attitude. Someone maintained that a policeman remarked that he had to record complaints, no matter how trivial, for fear of being reported to SUHAKAM.

However, we have problems too. Being a human rights institution, SUHAKAM has, on many occasions, been a strong critic of the government's policies and actions. Consequently, it is perceived by many quarters to be an NGO and anti-government. On the other hand, several NGOs and individuals have censured SUHAKAM for not doing enough. Some even accuse SUHAKAM of being a toothless tiger, referring to the fact that, by the 1999 Act, SUHAKAM has no enforcement power. Its role is only advisory. Many fail to realize that SUHAKAM, like other national human rights institutions, has only the power to monitor, investigate, report and advise the government on the appropriate measures to take when human rights are violated.

SUHAKAM realizes that there are several laws and government proclamations that infringe upon human rights. These include the Internal Security Act, Official Secrets Act, Printing Presses and Publication Act, Sedition Act, Police Act, University and University Colleges Act and the four Proclamations of Emergency. It is an unrealistic expectation that SUHAKAM within its short existence can perform the "superman" act of dismantling these laws. Malaysia is often criticized, particularly by quarters outside Malaysia, for its Internal Security Act. The attack on New York's World Trade Center on September 11, 2001 seemed to have changed the opinions and practices of some countries. Detention without trial apparently is now practiced in those countries.

A few months ago I attended an international conference on human rights, specifically addressing social, economic and cultural rights. I was approached by a participant who suggested that Malaysia should recognize sex trade as a legitimate profession and visitors who engaged in sex trade in Malaysia should not be apprehended. We discussed these issues and I explained our stand on sex trade and work without permit. Despite my explanation, this participant made a formal proposal for the recognition of sex trade and the legitimacy of work without permit at the close of this conference. In my opinion, this proposal was made because many of those who were apprehended for sex trade were from her country. The point I would like to make is not about sex trade but the question of whose human rights we are defending. This can frequently be a bone of contention.


Conclusion

Within its short existence of twenty months, SUHAKAM has accomplished much. But much more work is yet to be done. Infringement of human rights will undoubtedly occur as long as we are imperfect human beings. SUHAKAM hopes that its existence as an independent national human rights institution will help the number of incidences of human rights infringement drop drastically. With education, SUHAKAM hopes people will bring out their complaints on human rights violations. As a psychologist and educationist, I hope that SUHAKAM will succeed in fostering learning environments that encourage the individuals' participation in developing caring societies that uphold the dignity of human beings, and value friendship, understanding, tolerance and equality.

Professor Chiam Heng Keng is a Commissioner of SUHAKAM.

For further information please contact: Human Rights Commission of Malaysia, Tingkat 29, Menara Tun Razak, Jalan Raja Laut, 50350 Kuala Lumpur, ph (603) 247-4240), fax (603) 248-0159; e-mail: humanrights@suhakam.org.my

* The opinions expressed in this article are strictly those of the author.

Endnote

  1. KIV means Keep in View, this indicates that the case is still considered active but no further action is taken due to insufficuent evidence.

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