Pusat KOMAS together with Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM) and Institute for Development Studies (Sabah) organised the 9th National Conference on Non-Discrimination in Ming Garden Hotel, Kota Kinabalu, Sabah. This year’s theme was “Achieving Unity in a Plural Society”, with the aim to address the challenges bricked upon the aspiration of a New Malaysia. For the first time, Pusat KOMAS’ annual conference sets foot in Sabah. The conference was attended by 160 people comprised of ministers, high-level government officials, civil servants, civil societies, local communities, academics and the distinguished UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues, Dr. Fernand De Varennes.

Among the speakers of this year’s National Conference were fellow activists and political leaders from Malaysia, India and Indonesia who touched various issues pertaining the diversity of a plural society.

This year’s National Conference was inaugurated by the Vice-chairman of SUHAKAM, Datuk Godfrey Gregory Joitol. In his speech, Datuk Godfrey stressed the importance of inculcating the culture of discourses to address various forms of conflicts in our society. Democratic avenues of such kind will expose the people to adopt and implement methods of civic engagements in managing disagreements among the society. Thereby, embarking respectful methods will develop a sustainable relationship within the masses who will begin to appreciate the importance of embracing the existing differences through dialogues and intolerance shall be diminished.

Opening Performance

“Sabah Work in Progress” – a confluence of dance, mime and poem reverberated in the hall. The performers poignantly captured and presented the despair of being a minority and a victim of xenophobia in a place where racial discriminations are proudly claimed cease to exist. Interestingly, the performance left everyone with the question of “Who is Human and What is Human?”

Officiating Speech

Datuk Seri Panglima Hashim Paijan, on behalf of the Chief Minister Datuk Seri Panglima Haji Mohd Shafie Haji Apdal, conveyed the message of goodwill to the participants. In expressing the Chief Minister and the state government’s commitment, it was told that the state government has its concern over the issues of xenophobia targeting the vulnerable foreigners. He has also requested, considering the complexity of this issue, all parties including the NGOs and local leaders to stop fanning such sentiments. He called all the people to unite in finding proper solutions to make Sabah a state to be idolised and imbibed.

Keynote Address

UN Special Rapporteur on Minority Issues, Dr. Fernand de Varennes delivered his keynote address titled “Minorities and non-discrimination in international human rights law: Unity, Respect and Inclusion.” Briefly, he has also explained crucial points of his thematic and country-specific mandates in relevant to his portfolio such as to promote implementation of the Declaration on the Rights of Persons Belonging to National of Ethnic, Religious and Linguistic Minorities and raise awareness on human rights obligations such as of minorities.

In his keynote addresss, Dr. Fernand was identifying possible ways to handle these situations. He expressed his grave concern over the development of certain political flavor which vindicates and vilify the minority groups where they are denied or have lost citizenship because they belong to an unpopular, even despised minority – citing the Rohingya as an example.

Dr. Fernand has strongly emphasised that the human rights of minorities includes freedom of religion, the prohibition of religious, racial or linguistic discrimination and all other relevant human right standards.

Session 1 Highlights

Titled as “Asian experiences: Managing the complexities of a plural society”, the Session 1 was moderated by the former Sabah Attorney-General, Datuk Mariati Hajah Robert. Panelists of this session were Haris Azhar, Executive Director of Lokataru – a human rights organization; and John Samuel, the Executive Director of Asian Forum for Human Rights Development (Forum-ASIA).

Mr. Haris Azhar shared his experiences on the difficulties of uniting the people in a country where identity politics and religion are used to mobilise the people. He insinuated that those factors have seeped in and expands itself to become the primary political tool in Indonesia today. He criticised the Pancasila (foundational philosophical theory) was not only used to develop unity, but at the same time it paralysed diversity and victimised the minorities. Hence, Mr. Harris voiced the desperation to identify the available good elements in the society to build a common goal of understanding one another. It must be developed instead of perpetuating hostility in a plural society.

Mr. John Samuel on the other hand connoted India as a land of paradox. Although India has one of the most significant and powerful understanding of human rights which is even translated in its laws and federal constitution, the  practice of casteism and caste-based discrimination seems to be inevitable even in the current society. This paradox is plaguing India for many decades, says Mr. John. Therefore, he called the masses to hinder soft approaches, but strongly demand for their (minorities) rights and freedom.

Session 2 Highlights

Session 2 was entitled “Effective Strategies in countering hate speech”, moderated by Mr. Anthony Kiob, the acting CEO of Institute for Development Studies Sabah. Speakers of this topic were Ms. Aidila Razak, Special Reports Editor of Malaysiakini; Mr. Zulkifli Hashim, Director of Unity Management Division, Department of National Unity and Integration (JPNIN); and Zulkifli SM Anwar Ulhaque or popularly known as Zunar – the political cartoonist.

Ms. Aidila in her presentation, talks about the different forms of hate speech lingering in the social media. Her presentation also covered how the online news portal are unable to constructively supervise the comments prevailing in their news articles. However, she has also pointed out that their news portal does not practice arbitrary censorship and some news need to be published although it may illustrate hatred on others. This is because the news organization believe in holding the people accountable for their own expressions and to expose of their thoughts and mentality to the masses.

Mr. Zulkifli Hashim presented various incidences that triggered and had the potential to hurt the religious sensitivity of one another. In addressing those conflicts to etch a socially cohesive and an inclusive society, his department works closely with SUHAKAM to introduce a Race and Harmony Commissioner. Besides, they also engage with the grassroot community through “Rukun Tetangga” in educating, training and raising awareness to the public. Mr. Zuklifli also told the audience today that the department has developed an index to measure the level of unity among Malaysians which is in its final stage.

On contrary, Mr. Zunar raised an important question if “free speech” really exist in Malaysia. He criticised the culture of sensitising everything till open discussions are prohibited at all level of interactions. He argued that disallowing people from conversing certain issues deemed sensitive leads to misunderstanding and eventually disagreements. He called the government to step away from the mentality of the old regime of curbing discussions, thoughts and ideas perceived threatening to their power and benefits. He also managed to draw quick pieces of cartoon illustrating his trademark ways of handling issues.

Session 3 Highlights

Moderated by the Vice-Chairperson of BERSIH Sabah, Ms. Beverly Joeman, the session 3 on “Institutional Reform: Overhaul of Fine tune?’ had YB Jannie Lasimbang, the Law and Native Affairs Minister of Sabah; Mr. Jerald Joseph, SUHAKAM commissioner; and Mr. Andrew Khoo from the Malaysian Bar Council who is also a human rights lawyer as the Panelists.  

YB Jannie Lasimbang pointed out that it would be unnecessary to overhaul the current system since many reform plans are aligned to the cause of the people’s well-being, indiscriminate of the minority. She believes there are positive advancements in the strategy to strengthen the national unity. She expressed that the government has the responsibility to promote religious understanding and dismantle gender discrimination that destroys social cohesion.

Mr. Jerald Joseph in reiterating the direction of New Malaysia, he pin-pointed the government must be able to deliver its promises enshrined in their Manifesto. It is worrisome since the public must constantly remind them to adhere to the principles of democracy that they have championed when they were the opposition. He recommended the government of Malaysia to have the moral courage to make the right decisions that may not be populist but politically courageous. Additionally, he stressed the imperativeness of embarking positive offensive using the constitutional principles and call out the racist instigators and hate propagators that includes the political parties.

Member of the Bar Council, Mr. Andrew Khoo delved into the issues of discrimination from the legal perspective and the allocations of the International Conventions. In deducing his presentation, Mr. Andrew opined that acceptance is the key and not tolerance in handling the concept of majority – minority. He pointed out that equality must also weigh in dignity as much as rights.

Closing Remarks

The chairman of Institute for Development Studies (IDS) Sabah, Tan Sri Simon Sipaun reminded for the promulgation of national policies that would cater all people despite of differences. In moving towards such cause, he insisted the new government and the political player must be willing to steer themselves away from race and religion based political approaches. He criticised the race and religion approaches are fueling disunity and discontent than anything else.

Closing Speech

YB Senator P. Waytha Moorthy, Minister of National Unity and Social Wellbeing concluded the event by articulating his intention to move the nation into the path of non-discrimination. Acknowledging the challenging road ahead, YB Waytha is reluctant to give up the responsibilities in fear of hatred or criticisms. He has also expressed the role of all stakeholders to join hand in ensuring the nation’s unity is promoted and strengthened. Answering the question of extensive development, he says the development of the nation should involve the wellbeing of all including the minorities in Malaysia that will not leave anyone behind.