Progress and setbacks in Malaysia

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Full house: Members flocked to the the annual general meeting of the KL Bar Committee - Photograph: KL Bar Committee Facebook

Chris Chong provides a round-up of a few critical issues that cropped up in recent days.

We celebrated International Women’s Day a few days ago. Prema Devaraj observed how women have made tremendous progress in many sectors of society and this is something we should celebrate.

She however cautioned:

But in celebrating these many steps forward, let us not forget that there are thousands of women who cannot join in this journey.

Let us remind ourselves that the majority of women continue to suffer hardship and struggle: single mothers struggling to make ends meet; women workers struggling on long hours and low pay; women and girls struggling to come to terms with the effects of sexual assault and domestic violence; women struggling against the imposition of patriarchal interpretations of religion; moral policing and the threat of unjust punishments; indigenous women struggling against the destruction of their lands, culture and livelihood; refugee women struggling for protection and security for themselves and their families; migrant women struggling for freedom from modern-day slavery and denigration; trafficked women; transgender women; disabled women – the list goes on.

There is still a need to stand up and speak up for women’s rights if we are to have a just society.

Recently, Malaysians were bombarded with ethno-religious political narrative in the public square which threatens to split society apart. Allen Lopez, however, reported on the recent Kuala Lumpur Bar AGM, at which such a narrative was firmly rejected in favour of moderation.

According to him,

Expecting a rancorous affair, members flocked to the meeting – a record attendance of over 1,000 members (out of some 7,000 members)(see photo above). [On a personal note, this was the first annual meeting I attended.] Members were clearly determined to oust the taint of racial and religious intolerance which threatened to infect this august body.

Of the three candidates who offered themselves for the chairperson’s position, one stood out – for all the wrong reasons. The individual in question ran an overtly ethno-religious campaign, by openly appealing to sentiments of race and religion. This self-proclaimed champion of religion had pledged to defend the interests of his group by, among others things, banning alcohol consumption from the social events of the committee and supporting a move towards harsher Sharia penalties.

Before voting began, the floor was open to attendees to air their views on matters germane to the proceedings. As it turned out, this was the most heartening episode of the afternoon’s event. About half a dozen members took turns to speak. They spoke in hard-hitting, no-holds-barred language in condemnation of the position espoused by the candidate in question in his manifesto.

The common thread which ran through all the speakers’ comments was that our identity as Malaysians was something to be prized and protected and, to this end, we should be vigilant and ceaselessly battle the forces of divisiveness. They held that politicians were the ignoble proponents of division and the time-honoured role of the Bar was to thwart this pernicious legacy.

You can read the rest of the report here.

Finally, the recent cases of deaths in police custody should be of great concern toeridet Malaysians. Since the start of the year, there have been three reported deaths in custodial. Such tragic incidents should not have happened in the first place.

Prema Devaraj asks, “One cannot help but wonder how is it possible that someone who walks into a police lock up, apparently under the care and protection (ie custody) of the police, is unable to walk out alive? Is it too much to ask?”

She ponders whether it is time that “our government should also think about having something similar to the Office of the Inspector of Custodial Services, which is an independent statutory body focusing on performance standards in custodial facilities (state prisons, juvenile detention centres, court custody centres and prescribed lock-up facilities) and the rights of people in detention. It provides a high level of transparency and accountability of the sector through reports to Parliament.”

As she noted, “Irrespective of whether a detainee may or may not have committed a crime, they are still human beings. Any punishment meted out can only derive from the due process of law. Otherwise, we will descend into a complete state of lawlessness.”

You can read her thoughts on this issue here.

Chris Chong
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
11 March 2017

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