The year 2018 was a defining year in the history of Malaysia, as the sun set on a 61-year-old political rule that had been unbroken since Merdeka. The first ever change in government was heralded by many to be the beginnings of a more open, free and transformative democracy, with a manifesto of progressive election promises aimed at addressing various human rights issues that had plagued Malaysian society for many a decade.
Changing 61 years of a historical trajectory is no easy feat, and SUHAKAM recognises the challenge inherent in effecting the many commitments made by the new government. Key among these challenges is perhaps to first transform the civil service, an indispensable arm of the government, to be apolitical and neutral, with a high sense of ethical conduct. This is fundamental to realising the government’s reform plan and SUHAKAM believes that the new government has to seriously consider effective ways to rejuvenate the civil service if it is to spearhead the new Malaysian vision.
Prime Minister Tun Dr. Mahathir Mohamad himself pledged at the United Nations General Assembly on 28 September that Malaysia would accede to the remaining core United Nations instruments related to the promotion and protection of human rights to uphold principles of truth, justice, fairness, the rule of law and accountability, among others, as per the goal of the new administration.
In October, the government also announced its plan to abolish the death penalty, accompanied by an immediate moratorium on all executions. SUHAKAM was confident that this was an excellent first step in the total abolition of capital punishment in Malaysia. These announcements, along with that of the promised repeal of the Sedition Act 1948, Universities and University Colleges Act 1971 and the various incarnations of the Internal Security Act – Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012 (SOSMA) and Prevention of Crime Act 1959 (POCA) – draconian laws that had long been used as political tools against citizens expressing dissent, uplifted the entire nation. The future looked very bright indeed for Malaysia.
However, as 2018 drew to a close and euphoria settled nationwide, it is becoming increasingly clear that the new government would re-evaluate its promises to the people of Malaysia.
Despite the commitment to make Malaysia’s human rights record respected by the world, the government backpedalled on its keystone election commitments that would remove, for good, mechanisms that have curtailed human rights in Malaysia. The opportunity to accede to the six remaining international human rights treaties could not have come at a better time, but for even the so-called ‘low-hanging fruit’, a consensus could not be reached over the absolute prohibition of torture and the elimination of racial discrimination, for example.
Conditions of detention should not be an added punishment, and I lament the deplorable state of some of our prisons and detention centres that are in breach of a number of United Nations standards. There are still a handful of our prisons that use the bucket system, a degrading toilet system in the 1950s. SUHAKAM finds that our prisons lack the necessary resources for effective rehabilitation to ensure that when detainees are released, they are better equipped to become law-abiding individuals that can contribute to society.
Death in custody is a matter that SUHAKAM takes very seriously, and we continue to monitor prisons and detention centres to the best of our ability. In our view, Malaysia still has inadequate legal safeguards against torture in custodial settings and action by the government to effectively reduce and prevent acts of torture behind custodial walls seems to be minimal. Many of the primary safeguards against ill-treatment and torture of detainees are protected within the framework of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) that the government has committed to acceding. Likewise, accession to the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UNCAT) is a long-held hope here in SUHAKAM – one the government has also pledged its commitment to – and in doing so, will bring closure to inhuman treatment in custody and embrace a new regime of rehabilitation.
A blow to both human rights in Malaysia and SUHAKAM came in the form of the government distancing itself from participating in our 2018 Human Rights Day celebration that was misreported as a counter-rally as it bowed to political pressure to reject accession to the International Convention on the Elimination of All forms of Racial Discriminations (ICERD). The groups opposing accession were irrationally claiming that accession would unravel social contracts built on the backs of affirmative action and the special position of Malays in the Federal Constitution. SUHAKAM will persevere in its efforts to convince the government to pursue human rights as a necessity in the social, political and economic development of Malaysia.
For its part, SUHAKAM’s future is looking bright.
SUHAKAM has stepped up engagements with policymakers and ministers in a bid to increase awareness and understanding of human rights from a legislative standpoint and successfully organised its first joint programme for Members of Parliament with the Office of the Speaker of the House of Representatives (Dewan Rakyat) on 25 September. Current activities aimed at increasing transparency and independence in the governance of SUHAKAM are underway, with plans to make SUHAKAM accountable to Parliament. SUHAKAM’s independence would be further enhanced under Parliament and would provide us with leverage to operationalise human rights and in time validify the proposition that human rights are central to the country going forward and for Parliamentarians to believe that human rights win votes.
SUHAKAM also recognises the massive effort still needed to change laws, policies, infrastructure and attitudes following Malaysia’s accession to the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in 2010. More conversations with the public and various state and non-state actors are required before Kuala Lumpur, let alone Malaysia, can consider itself truly accessible to persons with disabilities.
Advocacy has been an essential part of the work in SUHAKAM, but as we emerge into a new era, our goal is to move beyond advocacy and to make real, measurable changes in the system.
This is but a snapshot, a year in a decades-long journey for the promotion and protection of human rights in Malaysia. We here in SUHAKAM certainly have our work cut out for us. Purposeful though it may be, there is still a long way to go until we are able to make our human rights record something the world can respect.
TAN SRI RAZALI ISMAIL
HUMAN RIGHTS COMMISSION OF MALAYSIA