WHEN IS IT EVER TIME FOR HUMAN RIGHTS IN MALAYSIA?

Speech by Kua Kia Soong, SUARAM Adviser at the launch of SUARAM’s Human Rights Overview Report 2018

On this Human Rights Day 2018, SUARAM asks: When will the time ever be ripe for human rights to be realised in Malaysia? Here, we pose six specific human rights questions to the new PH government which since coming to power on May 9th is developing a reputation for flip flopping over basic human rights issues. Such issues include failure to: ratify ICERD; bring back elected local government; redistribute wealth; regulate developers; commit to sustainable development and to have an accountable and effective police force. SUARAM’s Human Rights Report Overview for 2018 further calls for the abolition of detention-without-trial laws, the death penalty, the Sedition Act and the UUCA and other human rights violations that the PH government has found too convenient to use like their BN predecessors. The time never seems to be ripe for realising human rights in Malaysia…

1.       When is it time to outlaw racial discrimination in Malaysia?

While the new PH government is saying the time is not ripe to ratify the International Convention on the Eradication of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) that the General Assembly of the UN passed in 1965, let me remind them that as long ago as 1913, before the First World War, the Russian revolutionaries already had a position on the national question.  Yes, more than a hundred years ago, their concern at the time was that nations within Russia were being denied the right to self-determination in the name of opportunistic Great-Russian nationalism. Does that ring a bell in Malaysia amidst the cries of the Malay supremacists?

Thus, instead of introducing red herrings such as the suggestion that the Malaysian Constitution is racially discriminatory, we should instead endeavour to enact the necessary legislation to give domestic effect to ICERD. There is nothing to stop ‘New’ Malaysia from putting into place legislation and enforcement mechanisms that ensure that victims of discrimination can have access to an Equality Act and an Equality & Human Rights Commission to redress any racial discrimination.

Is the PH government not ashamed to be seen as perhaps the only supposedly democratic country that more than 60 years after Independence, still practices racially discriminatory ‘Bumis Only’ policies such as exist at UiTM? Let me remind the nation that with Article 153 in the Federal Constitution from 1957 to 1971, such ‘Bumis Only’ institutions did not exist in our then newly Independent nation. It was only after the coup detat against the Tunku by the new Malay ruling elite in May 1969 with their Bumiputeraist ideology that such discriminatory policies transformed Malaysian society.

2.       When is it time to bring back local government elections?

Then we have been told by the new PH government that we cannot afford to bring back elected local governments because of this supposed debt mountain inherited from the previous BN government. Whether our national debt is RM1 trillion or in fact RM800 billion depends on whether we include government guarantees and lease payments under public-private partnerships. The size of Malaysia’s government debt in international statistics for 2017 is actually 64% of GDP, compared to China’s 65%, Singapore’s 110% and Japan’s 236%. Moody’s figure for Malaysia in 2018 is 50.8% of GDP. Clearly, it is our economic fundamentals that count and the Finance Minister has assured us they are sound. So why does the new PH government continually use this mythical debt mountain as an excuse to cut public expenditure?

Malaysia must be the first country that, while claiming to be democratic yet gives the excuse of insufficient funds for not implementing local government elections! The PH parties have been slamming the former BN government for years for not bringing back elected local councils but this latest excuse is pretty lame. Indeed, it may be time for BERSIH to call for nation-wide protests to bring about elections of the third-tier of government that local elections provide, that was so rudely taken away from us in 1965.

On this question of funds for local elections, let me remind Malaysians that at Independence in 1957 when the GNP per capita of Malaya was just around $800, we could afford to conduct local government elections in the country. Today, with our GDP per capita close to US$10,000 and priding ourselves that we are on the brink of attaining a high-income society, the new PH government claims that we cannot afford to run local government elections!

3.       When is it time to tax the super-rich and redistribute wealth?

The time never seems to be ripe to implement wealth redistribution by progressive taxation of the super-rich top 1 per cent of our society. The Finance Minister has said that Budget 2019 did not tax the super-rich because it would have shocked the financial system…

We would think that it is time for progressive taxation of the super-rich instead of constantly raiding Petronas’ dividends to bridge the budget deficit which we have been doing ever since Dr Mahathir’s first term as PM.  The former Law Minister Zaid Ibrahim was a PH member until he criticised the “billionaires running the show”, referring to the Prime Minister’s “eminent” advisers. There are other “eminent” advisers who are the country’s top plantation owners, independent power producers and property developers who are advisers in PH-run states such as Perak. Such a pattern reeks of glaring conflict of interests. The Works Minister recently bemoaned the excessive “super profits” reaped by the toll operators all these years.

It is worth reminding Malaysians that the total wealth of the Forbes 50 richest Malaysians (the top 0.0017 per cent) is more than RM300 billion compared to the combined wealth of the B40 of just RM20 billion. But apparently, we cannot upset the top 1per cent of our high society or it will shake the entire financial system! The rest of us 99 per cent of Malaysians can continue to be taxed and the financial system and the market will be just fine…

Furthermore, the PH government’s war on kleptocracy will not gain credibility if the MACC fails to investigate perhaps the richest public official in Malaysia, namely, Taib Mahmud, the Governor of Sarawak. Since the PH government has given so much credence to Sarawak Report’s findings on 1MDB, why are they not acting on Sarawak Report’s decade-long dossier on the allegations of corruption and ill-gotten wealth of the former Sarawak Chief Minister?  The MACC can start by asking Taib Mahmud to fully declare his assets (not just income please!) and those of his spouses and children.

4.       When is it time to firmly regulate developers for the benefit of the people and the environment?

It is clear that particular rich developers have got the new government in their pockets since they could be given the contract for the Fund My Home scheme one day after the budget was announced. Apart from the criticism of cronyism in this project, private developers should stay out of public housing for the people. Let the federal government, state governments and elected local councils be in charge of public housing for the B40 and the working people of this country. And instead of looking East and West and North, they should just drive south of the border to find out how they manage public housing across the Causeway. Crony capitalism happens when the government is hand in glove with property tycoons and this results in house prices being artificially pushed up by limiting supply.

We need government intervention to solve the housing crisis and build liveable houses for the majority – not let the market dictate. Developers in Penang, Selangor and other states continue to have their way reclaiming land, building highways and flouting regulations by building on hillslopes even after two disasters have killed more than 20 people in Penang recently.

State governments have been allowing private developers to acquire land even when there are unresolved issues of temples and communities that have been in those locations for decades, such as the Seafield temple. As was the complaint in the Kuala Lumpur Structure Plan during the Eighties, there have been few provisions in council and state plans for temples and burial sites for minority communities.

5.       When is it time to commit to the climate change agenda and clean environment?

How long are we going to rely on Petronas dividends to patch up the budget deficit the way we have been doing since the Seventies? When will we realise a sovereign wealth fund like that of Norway’s which is worth more than US$1 trillion although their petroleum industry only started in the Nineties while ours started in the Seventies and we have only US$100 billion of assets?

What is our commitment to renewable energy and a clean environment? Why are we importing plastic wastes when we can hardly cope with our own domestically generated wastes? And if the new PH government cannot close down the Lynas plant, they should apologise to the people as well as to the former BN government because they rose to power on the discontent of the people there over the Lynas plant. It will be yet another unkept promise in the PH Buku Harapan. The people around Kuantan still want the toxic plant to close and to ask Lynas to generate the toxic waste in their own backyard in Australia.

The continuing travails of our indigenous peoples who are plagued by the encroachments of plantation interests and developers into their Native Customary Lands such as the Temiar at Gua Musang show that there is a desperate need for a Ministry for Indigenous Peoples and a national agenda to improve the lives of our indigenous peoples. Ad hoc State behaviour continues to exploit land for profit and abrogates their responsibility as stewards required to conserve our precious and biodiverse forests for the benefit of future generations of indigenous communities and as a brake on climate change that benefits all. The forest reserve in Gombak is about to be degazetted by PH just as Bukit Sungai Putih in Cheras was degazetted in 1992 for “development” by BN.

6.       When is it time for an accountable, effective Police Force?

The Home Ministry and the police have been portrayed in the media to be super-efficient at apprehending alleged Abu Sayyaf and ISIS terrorists but prove to be useless in finding Indira Gandhi’s daughter, pastor Philip Koh and other victims of enforced disappearances. We now hear of vigilantes in Kedah who abduct victims with impunity, apparently to “convert” them. This is an alarming trend for there is not a great distinction between such abductions and enforced disappearances.   

Why are the police characteristically late whenever racist mobs attack peaceful assemblies? This was seen not only recently at the Seafield temple but also at Kampung Medan in 2001, Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall in 2000, the Asia Pacific Conference on East Timor in 1996 and other such mob violence in recent years including May 13 in 1969. And we should stop calling these incidents “racial riots” – they are in fact mob attacks by racists and fascists intent on intimidating ethnic minorities in the country. Thus, the PH government decision to call off the ratification of ICERD is actually a triumph of fascism in this country.

There is an urgent need for a multi-ethnic peace-keeping force that can be rapidly deployed to any flashpoints such as occurred at Seafield and Kampung Medan in order to prevent any possible racial violence.

Malaysian civil society demands human rights now!

To conclude, after kicking out the old BN regime on May 9, the Malaysian people will not put up with the same lame excuses for postponing the implementation of these basic human rights. It is incumbent upon Malaysia’s civil society to carry on the struggle for a truly progressive new Malaysia in which human rights are respected and real reforms that uphold those rights are realised in our society. To all progressive and peace-loving peoples of Malaysia, SUARAM wishes you speedy actualisation of human rights in our lives…

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