Mary O’Donovan shares with us her unique and enlightening Malaysian internship experience.
I am sitting in the Malaysian Centre for Constitutionalism and Human Rights, which is also affectionately known as ‘The Centre’. ‘The Centre’ is nestled in a busy lane, up four very long flights of steps, in a place called Bangsar, Kuala Lumpur. As is my wont, I have found myself in deep thought, reflecting over what I’ve already learnt.
As an Australian who has recently completed her law degree, I went in search for a place that would contribute to the next stage of my law journey, but it would have to hold a bit more interest to me than some corporate law office back home in the Gold Coast. It would appear that I have certainly found this.
Upon telling a Malaysian that I am at a human rights centre, they would laugh and say, “We have a human rights centre….um, we have human rights?” Yup, apparently you do. In fact, Malaysia has ratified three Conventions. They are the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC), the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), both in 1995, and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (2010). The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suruhanjaya Hak Asasi Malaysia), better known locally as Suhakam is currently hoping to get the government to ratify six core United Nations (UN) Human Rights conventions, including the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination; the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights; and the UN Convention against Torture.
I became interested in Malaysia via social media. While completing my law degree, I became friends with one Malaysian and in turn, became friends with many who kept me both entertained and informed as I sat in front of my computer…. supposedly studying.
As we interacted, I became aware of the political situation within Malaysia. I became aware of such Acts as the Internal Security Act (ISA), and I became aware of the need for a clean and fair electoral system via the BERSIH movement and in turn, became involved by organising BERSIH 2.0 in Brisbane.
So, when I went in search for a place to do my internship, Malaysia was the obvious choice and hence, here I am, sitting in ‘The Centre’, after walking up those very long four flights of steps, in some place called Bangsar.
I am about to complete my first week here and I must admit that what I have found has both intrigued and shocked me. As I previously mentioned, I had heard about many aspects of Malaysia, but in the three-and-a-half years of interacting with Malaysians, I had never heard about the plight of the Orang Asli, or about this thing called ‘strategic litigation’. Upon being in any discussion with a Malaysian, I was always informed that there are three races in Malaysia: the Malays, the Chinese and the Indians. The indigenous people, the Orang Asli, was never mentioned. In fact, I am pretty sure that I was incorrectly informed that the Malays were the indigenous people.
I can actually forgive this incorrect information after I read an excerpt from the book, ‘The Politics of Indigeneity. Dialogues and Reflections of Indigenous Activism’. On page 95, it says:
“…the former prime minister of Malaysia….is quoted as saying, ‘nowhere are [Indigenous peoples] regarded as the definitive people of the country concerned. The definitive people are those who set up the first governments… Malays have always been the definitive people of the Malay-Peninsula.”
I always think that awareness is the first step in any situation which requires a solution. Hence, I have found myself researching this group of people, and over the next five weeks, I look forward to learning how The Centre will assist them through empowering them with knowledge of their rights.
Over the last week, I also came across a phrase called strategic litigation.
As with most situations in my life, when answers are readily sought, I turn to social media. So I asked, “I am just curious, who knows what strategic litigation is?” The answers ranged from the humorous “Lawyers strategic …really [sic]. That’s in the billing part of litigation hey”, to the more informed, “I’m fairly certain it’s the idea of taking cases to court with the aim of using the case to create legislative change, or at least bring greater public awareness or attention to a particular issue?” So I’ll attempt to briefly explain what I’ve learnt so far.
strategic litigation is litigation used to achieve social and political changes through ‘test cases’. It isn’t necessarily about justice for the individual, but for society as a whole. The impact hopefully lasts beyond the initial case on both the population and government.
At The Centre, they hold strategic litigation workshops with an aim to impart legal skills in the practice of constitutional and human rights law upon young lawyers and law students. By generating the interest of young lawyers in the area of strategic litigation, they hope these skills will be used as tools to promote and mainstream constitutional and human rights law in society. The Centre focuses “specifically on two main objects of the Bar found in Section 42 of the Legal Professional Act 1976, namely, to uphold the cause of justice without fear or favour and to assist the public in all matters related to the law and administration of justice”.
Although The Centre is only two years old, it has already built an impressive portfolio of cases before the courts, including cases dealing with freedom of religion, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, right to liberty and fair trial, equality and non-discrimination and the right to vote.
Although my time here is short, I have no doubt that it will be an extremely valuable time for me and I look forward to learning more about how The Centre works.
I came across this quote over the last week and there is something about it that struck a chord, so I thought I would share it with you:
“The world is not a given reality. We, as activists and lawyers, are here to shape it. Not for us to be shaped by it.”
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