Speech at the launch by Kua Kia Soong, SUARAM Adviser, 10 am, 15 June 2016

SUARAM is pleased to announce the publication of its Human Rights Report on Malaysia for 2015. We are proud to say that since SUARAM’s first Human Rights Report on Malaysia in 1998, our documentation and monitoring desk has ensured the publication of an annual human rights report every one of these 18 years, without fail.

Despite our diligence in auditing human rights in Malaysia, the Malaysian state continues to reinvent excuses tantamount to phobias, to suppress the just demands of Malaysians for their basic human rights: international terrorism is used to justify detention without trial; arbitrary bans on citizens’ freedom of movement are justified by flimsy notions of “protecting national pride”; the Sedition Act is invoked to persecute and harass critics, cartoonists, clowns and even football fans.

Satirizing leaders part of being a high-income society

Our leaders keep telling us to aim to be a high-income nation but they do not seem to realise that in becoming a high income nation, making fun of national leaders is part of that package – evident in all other such developed nations. Whenever leaders behave or act in unbecoming, undemocratic and often ludicrous ways, they open themselves to caricature by the nation’s cartoonists and lampoon artists. And as a high income nation we ought to be mature enough to put all this clowning in perspective and highlight the fact that citizens should have a healthy disrespect for their elected representatives. After all, is it not at election time that we see elected representatives as they really are: the SERVANTS of the people? So what is so different about the elected representative who gets elected to become Prime Minister? What is so sacrosanct about the post of Prime Minister?

Mahathir’s disrespectful open letter to Tunku, 17 June 1969

In contrast, what we witness repeatedly in Malaysia is selective prosecution and persecution that varies according to the situation and the personality involved. We just have to recall the utter contempt shown by Dr Mahathir for then Prime Minister and Bapa Malaysia, The Tunku, in Dr Mahathir’s offensive open letter to Tunku on 17 June 1969. Nonetheless, for writing this “disrespectful” letter to then Prime Minister, Dr Mahathir was not arrested nor was he charged for sedition. Furthermore, while Mahathir’s book ‘The Malay Dilemma’ published a few months later was banned, he was not arrested under the Internal Security Act. On the other hand, I was alleged to have written ‘The Roots of Polarisation in Malaysia’ in 1987 for which I was detained for 445 days under the ISA, even though my book was never banned. Such is the nature of Malaysian double standards and selective prosecutions…

So, comparing Mahathir’s offensive point blank letter to Bapa Malaysia in 1969 with the arrest and charges against Fahmi Reza for his rather humanistic and artistic clown mask, we have a good idea of the nature of Malaysian justice.

The fool on the hill

Like human rights, clowns are universal, performing the role of the fool, reminding us that everyday actions and tasks can be seen as extraordinary and for whom the absurd or ridiculous, especially in Malaysia has become ordinary and part of life. Thus, whether it is 2.6 billion in the Prime Minister’s personal account or the Chief Minister who does not know the market value of his house, the clown’s role is to shake us out of our complacent stupor. Through history and in diverse cultures, the flourishing of clowning as comedy has come to be accepted as a reflection of the human condition and welcomed by wise leaders as useful feedback.

In fact, it is not just in high-income 21st century societies that clowns abound but even in medieval times, court jesters had a certain role in brightening up the entertainments. Medieval jesters were responsible for amusing the court, to lighten the spirit of the ruler so as to prevent over-oppression of the people.

From ‘globophobia’ to ‘coulrophobia’

Somehow, Malaysian powers-that-be do not seem amused by the free spirit of our clowns and cartoonists! This irrational “fear of clowns” has been diagnosed as a psychiatric condition known as ‘coulrophobia’: ‘coulro’ is derived from the ancient Greek word for “one who goes on stilts.”

Now this is no laughing matter – fear of clowns is a serious issue. It is all the more serious when our authoritarian rulers only recently displayed signs of yet another psychiatric condition known as ‘globophobia’, the fear of balloons. Yes, it was also in 2015 that Malaysian lass Bilqis Hijjas was charged with insulting the Prime Minister by dropping balloons bearing pro-democracy messages NEAR him during a public event. The balloons didn’t even touch him and we know how traumatic it is to be hit smack on the head with a balloon! “Balloongate” has rightly drawn public ridicule as another example of phobia that authoritarians suffer from…

What have the draconian laws achieved?

But for all these frivolous arrests and prosecutions by the Malaysian police, they have failed to prevent years of impunity of paedophiles who have been preying on Malaysian children as well as impunity of illegal loggers who have been stripping our hills bare. Detention without trial has likewise failed to prevent corrupt practices of immigration officers which have facilitated the entry and exit of international terrorists and trafficked persons on a significant scale through the years.   On the other hand, the arbitrary arrests and detention of a politician and his lawyer for expressing their views on the 1MDB scandal have exposed the abuse of detention without trial (DWT) laws, something the proposers of these laws promised would not happen.

Our draconian laws have not prevented us from being ranked No.2 in the world for crony capitalism and No.5 for illicit financial flows. And we have moved up from Tier 3 to Tier 2 in the human trafficking index despite the discovery of mass graves near the Thai border and only because the US are too keen to include Malaysia in the TPPA scheme of things.

Clearly, the authorities have failed to get their priorities right. The recent busting of the vile paedophile Huckle by the British police has exposed the reality that Malaysia does not have effective laws to deal with paedophiles in our midst and that the attitude of the authorities to such crimes against children leaves much to be desired. Likewise, the recent cases of the cavalier preacher Zakir Naik and the lecturer at UTM who preach religious bigotry has highlighted the need for a Race & Religious Hatred Act to deal with religious bigotry, hate speeches and related intolerance.

The relative gravity of human rights violations

As we compare the relative gravity of human rights violations, using a singular ranking index to compare violations in different spheres is not easy. Thus, while many Malaysians would see the 1MDB scandal as a major violation of good governance, how does it compare with the plight of the Rohingyas who were forced to flee their country in rickety boats at the mercy of the Andaman Sea or the plight of trafficked human beings who lost their lives and were buried in the mass graves uncovered in 2015?

When a 100 year-old Malaysian who has lived in this country for decades finally got her citizenship, does the government of the day deserve praise or scorn? The mainstream press carried the news as if to celebrate the great benevolence of the BN government. And after centuries in this land that is truly theirs, how do we compare all these human rights violations with yet another year of abject existence for the original people of the peninsula, the Orang Asli, who remain one of the poorest communities in this country?

Missed opportunities in 2015

Malaysia missed an invaluable opportunity in 2015. As the chair of ASEAN, Malaysia could have taken the initiative in tackling the issue of Rohingyas who were forced to flee Burma in flimsy boats; the periodic haze in the region caused by unscrupulous burning of the forests in Indonesia and the scourge of human trafficking highlighted in 2015 by the discovery of the mass graves.

To conclude, SUARAM reminds the country that human rights exist to impose limits on the powers of despots and help to safeguard human dignity and autonomy. The Malaysian government would do well to recognize human rights as compass guides to good governance and to observe the legal obligations in ratifying all the essential international conventions on the various aspects of human rights demanding urgent attention. That is what a high income nation would aspire to ensuring!