Originally published by the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) in April 2008, and republished by the Malaysian Bar, it is worth reminding ourselves why the BERSIH 2.0 public rally should be so important to all Malaysians and for the future of our Malaysia.
Mr Edmund Bon is a practicing lawyer in Malaysia and the Chairman of the Human Rights Committee of the Malaysian Bar Council. In 2007 he took part in protests in KL which saw thousands of Malaysians engage in mass civil disobedience.
He was recently in Singapore to help conduct a workshop on human rights and the use of non-violent action to effect political change. He subsequently gave this interview to the Singapore Democrats. This comes on the eve of Malaysian bloggers and Internet strategists speaking at a few forums here.
SDP: How do you see your role as chair of the Human Rights Committee in the Malaysian Bar Council in the development of democracy in Malaysia?
Bon: Section 42 of the Legal Profession Act, 1965 is very clear on the Bar’s role in the country: “To uphold the cause of justice without regard to its own interests or that of its members, uninfluenced by fear or favour.”
The Bar has on numerous occasions since its inception stood for victims of rights violations, and struggled consistently to improve the lives of everyone in the country even at great personal risk to our members. The Human Rights Committee is merely carrying on this tradition. Much of our work is focused on law reform and advocacy. We adopted a “Blueprint for Human Rights” last term as a road-map of the Committee, and it may be accessed here.
Nevertheless, we are aware that there are limitations to our work – all of us are part-timers involved in our own legal practices, and resources are stretched. We can recommend changes but if the Government of the day refuses to listen, there is little which can be done except to voice our dissatisfaction through the ballot process.
Realising this, we are acutely mindful of the need to combine ‘litigation’ with ‘demonstrations’ and ‘legislation’, or what Rev Jesse Jackson describes as ‘gotcha politics’. He was speaking on Martin Luther King’s civil rights campaign, and how you need lawyers to fight cases in court, the people to make their views known through public assemblies, and politicians to make just laws or undo unjust ones. Each of the three cannot stand alone.
I think for the first time in Malaysia’s 51 years of controlled democracy, we have seen this brand of politics arrive in a full circle with the recent election results. Malaysian lawyers have been instituting constitutional cases and rights litigation for the longest time with some successes.
It was evident that going to court to settle our problems was not going to solve the larger policy problem of rights compliance in the country.
It was therefore quite natural that in late 2007 to early 2008, we saw the massive rallies – first, the September ‘Walk for Justice’ by the lawyers, the November Bersih rally seeking electoral reforms and the Hindraf rally highlighting issues of the Indian community, the ‘Human Rights Day Walk’ on 9 December 2007 and the GMI candlelight vigil protesting the use of the Internal Security Act on the Hindraf leaders in January 2008.
The people were not afraid of the Government machinery anymore, much less the tear-gas and water cannons! Many were arrested, and this really was a wake-up call especially to the middle-class, and the usually ambivalent ‘rakyat’ that the Government did not really care about all of us. Another interesting feature was the fact that you saw Malaysians from all walks of life and from different ethnic groups and religions coming out to protest, and the threats of inter-racial conflicts harking back to May 13 were absolutely debunked.
The third aspect of ‘legislation’ required the people to elect friends of the cause, and those who were sensitised to civil society activism into Parliament. Many NGOs had their representatives seeking seats in Government, and to our surprise, many of them got in.
Many members of the Bar have also been voted in, and they stand on both sides of the divide – the Barisan Nasional and the Pakatan Rakyat coalitions. This is most encouraging, but the hard work starts now. As far as the Bar is concerned, so long we take our positions well, as we have so far, we believe democratic reform will flourish. The Human Rights Committee hopefully has contributed in a small way to this process.
SDP: What do you think were the benefits of the recent spate of the protests to Malaysia?
Bon: It sensitised a lot of people. The Government could have done better by allowing the protests and not clamping down on the same with the use or threat of force. Malaysians have become very mature and rational very fast. But we are still being treated like kids.
Having pictures of protesters being beaten or smoked by the authorities on every alternative media site did the Government a lot of harm in terms of public relations. Then, with the Hindraf rallies seeking improvements in the lives of an ethnic minority – what does the government do? – they refuse to talk to Hindraf, brands the organisation as having links with terrorists and locks its leaders in Kamunting.
Is this how one runs a country? The way the protests were handled made many people angry, and the message was to vote against the Government – period. In fact, there would have been less damage to the Government if the authorities did not act the way that they did. So, in hindsight, the reactions to the protests had a greater impact than the actual protests per se.
SDP: You were arrested in one of the protests. As a lawyer, do you think it is wrong for a citizen, much less a lawyer to break laws?
Bon: Firstly, I did not intend to break any law. I was charged for obstructing public officers in the execution of their duties. Secondly, I was not involved in any protest. We were celebrating Human Rights Day when I was arrested. I will leave the court process to take its course.
However, if one speaks of civil disobedience, there are times when it is absolutely necessary. It really must depend on the issue in particular, circumstances of the situation and whether there is a critical mass which opine that the unjust law deserves to be broken.
In other words, if we did not break the law, would we be upholding the cause of justice, and how would that impact society? The September Walk for Justice by lawyers after we read and saw the Lingam video recording – quite surely we were right to do it even without having a police permit to walk.
Malaysians were proud we did it. Accolades are received even now, and some say we were the ones who started the spate of rallies leading to the results in the elections. More than 2000 members walked that day and I can assure you that everyone knew what they were in for, and were ready to be arrested.
Thereafter, the Government quickly established the Royal Commission, and all the dirt on the Judiciary when we could then only whisper among ourselves in our court canteens have been made public. And we can now move forward, and find ways for genuine reform after ‘cleansing’ the Judiciary.
Now, tell me whether it was worth it? Were we wrong to walk without a permit? There will be opposing views on this even from within the Bar but we must acknowledge that the process of democratisation has never taken an easy course anywhere in the world.
As quoted in section 42, our own interests are irrelevant. We should be at the forefront of opposing unjust laws and acts. Mandela, Gandhi, King and the monks in Burma are some examples of citizens standing up with their lives to fight repression and oppression. There can be little difference if one is trained in the law or otherwise. The duty is incumbent on every person.
SDP: What role do you see lawyers play in helping to bring about or maintain democracy in a country?
Bon: Lawyers are to be in the frontline with the people. We are slightly more learned and are trained to articulate our views in certain ways where we seek to persuade. But if continuous persuasion fails, and the people are still oppressed or marginalised or victimised, then we need to take activism to a different level.
Lawyers provide both the tools and the leverage. We should not waste the influence or perceived influence we have with the Government to represent the interests of the people. I would dare say that because we walked in September, the Government now lends a closer or larger ear to us when we speak.
It used to be that few doors were open, but we have regained our respectability. If our Bar is going to be mute, it is difficult to continue regarding ourselves as an independent Bar. And it would be difficult to say that we are fulfilling our legislative objects given to us in section 42 of our founding document.
SDP: Do you think the rule of law exists in societies like Malaysia and Singapore?
Bon: It depends on how one defines the ‘rule of law’. Unjust laws should not rule any society. Laws which discriminate based on irrelevant factors such as gender, ethnicity or religion are not laws by which we should live by.
But if you have laws which are fair, then these laws need to be protected and encouraged. Hence, international human rights treaties stipulate certain minimum guarantees to ensure that the human person is granted his or her dignity to live the life as he or she chooses. There are definitely bad laws in both our countries – press freedom, detention without trial, gender-biased provisions and the like.
Let us mirror some of our laws with the stipulations of the rights conventions. If our laws are in accordance with the same, there is no reason why we should not sign up to the conventions. If our laws are in contravention, let us sit down and discuss it with the relevant authorities and the human rights people. We need to see how we can agree on some of the matters and move on.
SDP: Are you hopeful about the ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism?
Bon: Yes, of course. But it needs the support and political will of the ASEAN member states. NGOs cannot do it alone. And civil society wants to see real reform within the ASEAN system. If the people in power do not want to change, then there is little hope.
Even an issue like Myanmar is at an impasse. It is time that ASEAN allows greater lay participation by the people, and certain specialist participation by for example, Bar associations, doctors’ collectives and social engineering experts.
SDP: Do you have anything to say to Singaporeans who are thinking of getting into activism work?
Bon: Fear is the first factor which causes self-censorship. But much of this fear is self-generated, and personal conditioning. It is easy to break this type of conditioning if we intellectually survey the limits of our self. There are ingenious ways to get round fear, but every person needs good people around him or her.
You also need a strong and supportive collective, and enlightened leaders. There are many levels of activism and it is not all about going out on the streets to demonstrate only. Dialogue, negotiation and mediation should be the first step.
But if the Government does not listen then the next level may be invoked. Malaysians were unhappy that all the promises the Government made were not being fulfilled. And doors were being shut. Our institutions were being demolished systematically though not physically. There was therefore no choice but to demonstrate. Yet, we need to always recall the three areas – litigation, demonstrations and legislation. Only if we partake in all three will there be real change.
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