Revisiting a post from September 2008 that still reverberates. Can a group or organisation that addresses politics or politically-related issues be truly non-partisan?
The Bar has increasingly become a pressure group lobbying for social change, but this does not mean that it engages in political causes.
Criticising the Bar’s historic ‘Walk for Justice’ on Sept 26, 2007, a Minister was quoted as saying: “Those who participated in the ‘Walk for Justice,’ their brains are like Opposition party. It is better for them to register as members of an Opposition party. I will be more delighted if they (Bar Council) register as an Opposition party so that I will know how to handle them.”
The Minister was surely mistaken in likening members of the Bar to Opposition party members. Perhaps the error stemmed from confusing the spearheading of “political causes” by the Bar with supporting “political parties.”
Politics arises by the nature of human plurality. The aim of politics is to promote the foundation of a “good life” and its superior end is freedom.
Politics affects every person’s life. From the price of fuel and vegetables to whether a student is able to obtain a scholarship and the availability of public schools and playgrounds, the political process (which puts the Government in power) shapes the Government’s decisions on these matters. This process also allows government policies to be critiqued and scrutinised.
Political causes attempt to bring about change by shifting or balancing the power equation between the Government and citizens. In the process, those who espouse the cause(s) attempt to redefine and reinterpret the “good life” as they perceive it should be.
Agitating for an improvement in the administration of justice, legal reform and human rights is a political cause. It would entail convincing those in authority to effect certain changes.
This is not a task, which should only be left to political parties, and those who champion political causes do not inevitably step into the shoes of political parties or are to be viewed in the same light. This is where the Minister erred.
The role of the Malaysian Bar
No one should pretend that the Bar or its members are immune from the effects of politics. The Bar has throughout its history and tradition assumed the mantle, whether by accident or deliberately, of fighting for numerous causes, which are deemed “political.” The 1988 judicial crisis is one example.
Continued opposition towards the Internal Security Act and Emergency Ordinance, and heavy-handed measures to curtail constitutional liberties such as free speech and the right to assembly are other struggles.
Upholding the rights of the Orang Asli is another political cause where a redistribution of the country’s resources for the betterment of the indigenous people is sought.
Does taking up these important matters by extension make the Bar a political party, and one which is opposed to the Government?
The Bar’s statutory purpose in section 42 of the Legal Profession Act demands that the Bar upholds the cause of justice without regard to its own interests or that of its members, uninfluenced by fear or favour.
Protection of the public in all matters touching ancillary or incidental to the law is another duty. The Bar cannot fail or neglect to perform these statutory obligations.
Given that the Bar is an “apolitical” body (i.e. it does not support any particular political party), it is nevertheless duty-bound to take up political causes.
While there are attempts by various quarters to cast aspersions on the actions of the Bar Council by continuing attacks that demonise, the truth is rather different. It is neither anti-Government nor pro-Opposition. It is pro-justice and anti-injustice, based on the issues in question.
The truth is that the annually elected 36-member Bar Council (which leads the 12,600-member Malaysian Bar) has as its members those aligned to political parties on both sides of the divide — parties within the Barisan Nasional and Pakatan Rakyat coalitions.
Some are card-carrying members of the component parties, some highly influential in these parties. Some are sympathisers or supporters of these parties. Therein lies the strength and diversity of the Council.
Problem with Malaysian politics
The political culture today is party-centric or personality-driven. While political parties and their leaders keep at their different games, the real and substantive issues of governance are either ignored, side-stepped or forgotten.
Proposed laws are not debated with sufficient aptitude in Parliament. Important Bills, which affect human rights are not referred to bodies like the Human Rights Commission and other stakeholders. One such example is the recent DNA Identification Bill.
The fault lies not with politics but the people in politics and our political culture.
As this is happening, the Bar’s role in public discourse regarding legislation and rule of law issues is enlarged. With the Bar seeking to provide an issue-based and pro-rights platform to act on a collective conscience of justice and freedom, its role has taken a much greater prominence than anticipated.
It has seemed to become a repository of progressive ideas in search of a more civilised Malaysia. By default, the Bar has increasingly become an indispensable pressure group lobbying for social change. And rightly so.
Just as the Bar must always remain neutral in so far as political partisanship is concerned, similarly it cannot remain indifferent to issues pertaining to the rule of law, such as the weakening of our constitutional institutions and increased rights abuses.
New platform: a lawyers’ party?
Let us return to the Minister’s statement. The results of the 12th general election have opened up the possibility of a two-party system. This represents a watershed in our democracy.
Is there now a need for a third alternative to promote greater intellectual discussion on issues of the day?
Perhaps it is time for a purely issue-driven, pro-rights party bound by a common cause to secure, advocate and protect the rule of law while promoting and improving human rights.
The Minister should be careful about what he wishes for, as he may get it, and ultimately regrets his wish.