He was then asked whether the denial of a scholarship, for example, to a
qualified non-bumiputra was an
infringement of human rights.
The moderator pointed out that the
bumiputra who won the scholarship could be from a well-off family.
The human rights advocate from Suaram
appeared to be caught off guard and could not provide a reasonable reply.
The lesson here is that it is not
possible to translate human rights
to the letter.
If we argue literally, the NEP was certainly
against basic human rights. But it was a
package accepted by Malaysians, including non Malays. Some see it as positive
It brought along political stability and the expansion of the middle class, particularly among the Malays. A
bigger middle class means greater
consumption which, in turn, will
galvanise the economy.
One of the most recent significant political developments is greater political awareness.
Malaysians, particularly the younger
set, have begun to scrutinise the functions of our institutions.
There is no question that there are
flaws in our system but that does not
mean the entire system is wrong.
If positive changes could be made to
laws which we think are no longer
relevant, then we should be open enough
to review those laws.
We should also learn to appreciate the role of non-government organisations
(NGOs) in providing feedback to the
The entry of the Movement for Social
Justice (Adil) initiated by Datin Seri
Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail would be another form of check and balance.
At this point, we are unsure of its
programme but its multi-ethnic
composition is certainly a step in
the right direction.
It has a list of respectable figures, lending further weight to the movement. Comprising mostly academicians,
Adil has given the impression that it wants to play an educator's role.
Thus, it has announced that it wants to
be “non-political'' but at the same
time said it would push for
So, like many other NGOs, it may end up
as an armchair critic by issuing press statements, giving lectures and
Having said that, Adil has a fresh
chance of being more holistic in its
approach to human rights.
One of the greatest disservice of some
NGOs is their refusal to emphasise economic and social rights.
It is a pity that our Malaysian human
rights groups are not committed to a more comprehensive view of human rights. Most of them seek to defend political and civil rights, as they are conventionally understood.
Whether our NGOs are ready to admit it
or not, we cannot help but suspect the
powerful psychological and possibly
financial influence and impact that
Western human rights groups have on
their Malaysian counterparts.
Thus, our NGOs do not see our right to
food, clothing, shelter, employment, education and health which are all basic needs.
For example, opposition parties and NGOs
have fought for decades to repeal the
Internal Security Act during elections
but the tactic has never generated sufficient
emotions for it to be translated into
The reason is simple. Draconian as it
may seem, the ISA means very little to
many ordinary people who are too busy
trying to feed their families.
Right or wrong, and selfish as it may
seem, they assume that politicians should be prepared to face the consequences of the game.
In Myanmar, the economic sanction has led to factories being shut down. For ordinary folk, it means loss of jobs.
The military regime is still in power,
Aung San Suu Kyi is still in her
bungalow, the investors merely packed
off to neighbouring countries to set up shop and NGOs continue their
But we spare very little thought for the
faceless factory workers with families
to feed. It's all too simple to blame
the system but for these people, it
means the right to survive.
Surely, there must be better ways to
pressure a government, even if we scoff
at Asean's constructive engagement policy.
Another flaw of our NGOs is their
continuous approach to human rights to revolve around individuals, which is a
very Western perspective.
In Malaysia, as in many Asian countries,
collectivity, community and the nation
Thus, when we talk about human rights,
we also have to consider our duties to fellow
As proven, the right to demonstrate, as a form of collective expression, has
gone down badly with many
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, for example, shows an overwhelming concern for political and civil rights.
Through NGOs, Western powers have
created the belief that human rights is
essentially political freedom and civil liberties.
Many of us, in fact, have become so
convinced by such arguments that anyone
who comes up with a different approach
is perceived as a sycophant of the
Similarly, we need not term those who
advocate changes and reforms as
anti-government and unpatriotic.
We must not write off those who do not
subscribe to our views but we must
accept the views of the majority. Those
who talk about the right to dissent must
respect the majority.
There is nothing wrong for us to tailor
human rights according to our needs and
Politicians and activists who embrace human rights from a democratic-liberal
approach are regarded as champions of human rights with high principles.
Many, somehow, are willing to forgive
them even when they are not objective.
Everyone seems to be biased except these
privileged human rights activists.
So, we end up having another warped
definition of human rights. To be
critical of the government means to
uphold social justice.
Thus, we continue to treat lightly the
dominance from the West in the form of
economic superiority, authoritarianism in international relations and the flow
Our human rights groups cannot say their
concern is merely Malaysian. If that is so, then their understanding of human
rights would only hamper the growth of a
more holistic understanding of this
Malaysians deserve the right to a
legitimately elected government
which can ensure political and economic stability.
And if we truly subscribe to social justice, we should also be ready to censure any move from the West to challenge our sovereignty.