By Anusha Arumugam, 1 February 2021

You are a human being worthy of honour and respect. You have the right to a livelihood; right to education; right to healthcare; right to a habitat; right to social, political, economic and cultural aspirations; and the right to express your demand for these necessities. This freedom is yours, as much as it is mine.

These rights cannot be compartmentalised or fragmented, but instead, they are mutually dependent. This means that it is a fallacy that some types of rights can be suppressed in the name of other rights. But for our rights to be respected and protected, the pre-condition of the democratisation and humanisation of the State must be fulfilled. If our democracy is failing, then our aspirations cannot be realised. In Malaysia, unfortunately, our democracy is shrinking.

Democracy means that as a member of this State, you can exercise your right to elect a representative. This representative meets with other elected representatives to make policies to safeguard and promote our inalienable and indivisible rights. These policies are most important because they influence institutions like the judiciary, the police, the Attorney General’s chambers and these policies are internalised within other institutions like the executive, legislature, and other government institutions and sectors e.g. universities, schools, hospitals, the election commission, banks, ….endless list.

When these policies and practices get internalised, then the people working in these institutions also internalise them. That means, if our institutions implement race-biased policies and dwell and drown in corrupt practices, then employees of these institutions are bound to follow suit. We cannot blame them alone because they too are victims of dysfunctional institutions ruled by elitists. So how do we correct this?

We change how institutions function. How? We change the policies. How? We change the people making the policies. How? We vote and exercise our democratic rights. But in Malaysia, elections do not mean democracy. Our democracy is legitimacy deficit. This regime actually fears democracy.

So the problem now is that we are unable to vote for the change we want because the State has created tools of oppression to keep the ruling regime in power. There are arbitrary laws to indiscriminately prosecute people who highlight these issues, we are faced with a fraudulent electoral process and a fraudulent electoral system, our Prosecutor practices selective prosecution, our anti-corruption commission is not independent of the Prime Minister’s influence. These oppressive mechanisms ultimately function because there is no separation of powers, i.e. institutions that are meant to function as a check and balance are heavily controlled by the ruling government’s regime.

As Malaysia is forced into unfamiliar territory of military rule, the threat to human rights is ever so pronounced. What do we do?

First, we must demand for a legitimate democratic process to be in place; then we need to put pressure on the government to bring about institutional change. We advocate, we get into uncomfortable discussions and sometimes even protest. Second, it is imperative that we hold Parliamentary members, the executive, the judiciary, the police and the prosecutors accountable. They should be protecting our rights, not violating them. We must take them to task. We must speak about them, challenge them and not tolerate cronyism, incompetency and blatant discrimination. Third, be brave enough to talk to people about rights when violated. Consciousness on human rights is crucial and only comes with reading and writing. Participate in discussions. Support organisations that promote human rights and report violations to such organizations.  

The Preamble to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, whereas disregard and contemptfor human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people. On that note, the dignity of the common people can never be surrendered, it is what makes us human. History has gone a long way to give us that honour, any act of surrendering is a betrayal. In the face of adversity, if man is not to be compelled to have recourse, as a last resort, to rebellion against tyranny and oppression, human rights should be protected by the rule of law.

*Anusha Arumugam is a Tunku Abdul Rahman Scholar of the University of Cambridge. This article is part of a series of articles ‘Human Rights in Malaysia’ by the author. All views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Pusat KOMAS.