This article by Pang Khee Teik was first published on FZ.com.
We were at a workshop playing the Human Rights Village game. Yes, activists are so fun even our games are about human rights.
Folks were asked to form groups and imagine establishing their very own kampong.
“As this is your own kampong,” said the moderator, “you get to form your own set of constitution. What 20 rights must you have?”
“Ooh, awesome!” the villagers replied with glee.
Some wrote “Education”. Some wrote “Work”. Some wrote “Shelter”. Some wrote “Security”. One wrote “Shopping.”
After 15 minutes, the moderator, clapped her hands, and said, “Done?”
“Yes!” The groups were eager to show off their 20 commandments. But the moderator grinned broadly and said, “Now reduce that list to 10 rights.”
“Oh no!” the villagers exclaimed. With a heavy heart, they went back to the drawing board. They argued among themselves, threw out rights that they thought were already represented by other rights, and finally settled for the 10 they couldn’t do without. “Oh my god, this is hard. But okay, we can be happy with these.”
Then the moderator said, “Now take away five.”
“Just do it,” said the moderator.
Yet again the villagers did it. Then it was down to three. Yet they protested, yet they did it. Then just one. And yet they protested, and yet they did it. Everyone looked as deflated as balloons without parties. They stared at their one remaining right. Luckily it is only a game, someone said.
Another said: Okay, if it is all down to just one right, this is it. One group has “Equality”. Another has “Dignity.” Another has “Life”.
The moderator asked, “How did you all feel about having to take away some of the rights?”
“It feels horrible!”
“It made me want to give up.”
The moderator asked, “Then why did you take away the rights?”
“Because you asked us to.”
Security vs free market
Although this article is meant to address the right to adequate housing, I recounted the above story to highlight one important fact. None of our rights work in isolation.
The right to adequate housing exists within the right to an adequate standard of living, which includes the right to “adequate food, clothing and housing, and to the continuous improvement of living conditions”.
The right to an adequate standard of living is part of the right to live in security, peace and dignity.
Taking away just one of our human rights takes away part of our dignity. Taking away our dignity takes away our ability to fight for our rights. Perhaps one of the slyest tricks of the powerful is to convince us that our dignity has a price. That with money and materials, we can compensate for less rights. The success of the capitalist campaign has, for example, made it possible to pay for better housing if we can afford it. And if we can’t, we accept that we deserve inadequate housing.
During the above game, a girl found herself choosing between “Security” and “Free market”. She talked about the rising crime rate in Kuala Lumpur and expressed that profound universal hope of being able to walk around her neighbourhood without being robbed or raped. But then she smiled and said, “Well, if a place has better security, I don’t mind paying for it.” With that she removed the right to “Security” leaving “Free market”.
But by the next round, even “Free market” will be freed from the list. With states behaving more like corporations and businesses, rights become commoditised. We spend more and more money beefing up security, or moving into gated communities. But have these protected us from crime? When we surrender our rights, what is left to protect our ability to use our hard-earned wealth to the “continuous improvement of our living conditions”?
The fundamental question to ask is this: Do people who cannot afford state-of-the-art security deserve to live with a higher crime rate?
So what is the basic level of security we should expect from the state and what can we do about it?
A roof big enough
According to the United Nations, the right to adequate housing does not suffice with merely a roof over one’s head. A bus stop, therefore, is not adequate housing. Some of the key principles behind the right to adequate housing are:
All the above seems like common sense, no? Unfortunately many people in Malaysia are living in inadequate housing standards.
Maybe you have heard stories about refugees escaping inhospitable conditions in their countries only to end up living in inhospitable jungle camps in Malaysia.
Maybe you have heard about Orang Asli and Orang Asal communities forcibly moved from their customary lands because a dam, a highway or a mall needs to be built on their land, and are then provided houses in cramped urban areas where they cannot practise their customs.
Maybe you have heard about young teenage LGBTs, kicked out by their own parents onto the streets and these parents are not made accountable for such actions.
And if you haven’t heard these stories, you should. They are happening around us. If we keep thinking of housing as a commodity paid off by hard work and wealth, we will not be able to see these cases as anything more than unlucky people or even lazy people.
When we appreciate that the right to adequate housing is fundamental to our human dignity, then we can start to fight for the dignity of our neighbours too.
So, demand that the right to adequate housing becomes an election issue. Speak to MPs. Advocate for local elections in order to vote for mayors and city councillors and then pressure them to administer your area better. If your MP won’t listen then gather in groups and form your Human Rights kampong to demand for your commandments.
This time, however, don’t let go of your rights without a fight.
This article is inspired by UndiMsia!’s infographic “Live like a human being! It’s your right”. UndiMsia! is a non-partisan movement focusing on citizen empowerment, based out of the Malaysian Centre for Constitutionalism and Human Rights (aka the LoyarBurok Rakyat Centre). For more information, please go to UndiMsia.com or LoyarBurok.com.