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Pendapat / Opinion

Towards a golden age of discourse

Fair but robust criticism of legal judgments and laws is a wholly acceptable practice. In every democratic State it is a frequent occurrence. It is what makes a system of justice and law-making stronger.

In the past it was largely lawyers at the forefront of such criticisms. However, with the information age and globalisation, there is a rising tide of awareness of such matters amongst the public in Malaysia. It is heartening to see the public join in the outcry against injustice and unjust laws. It is stimulating to read the arguments for and against a viewpoint, and with this comes the realisation that we should neither take the Malaysian public for granted nor should we underestimate their ability to reason and debate sensibly.

Which makes the lodging of the police reports against JAG (Joint Action Group for Gender Equality) on the Kartika caning issue so disappointing. I must at once disclose my interest. I am an Executive Committee member of Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO), a JAG member, and I was not present at the press conference on 1 October only because I was overseas. Nevertheless I fully endorse JAG’s stand in relation to the Kartika caning. It was a stand taken after due consideration of all legal and human rights factors and this basis is set out in full in the JAG Memorandum of 25 August.

Those persuaded by these arguments will continue to support them until and unless they are persuaded otherwise, not by threats, but by sound and logical arguments.

The aim of those who lodge police reports alleging a range of offences including sedition is clearly to intimidate and to suppress views that do not accord with theirs. Unfortunately, in today’s Malaysia, that is no longer acceptable. Forcibly shutting down discussion does a disservice to one’s cause. It gives an impression of close-mindedness and an inability to argue a case on principle or merit. I would invite them to look at things differently.

We should also deal with the all too-familiar-statements that “these are God’s laws you are questioning” and “you are non-Muslim, why are you interfering?”

Firstly, no one is questioning God’s laws. What is sought is a discussion of the human interpretation of these laws. It appears that even each Syariah State Enactment differs. So where is the seditious tendency in asking for these laws to be looked at and reviewed?

The other point about non-Muslims being involved must also be confronted. I would do that by asking in turn what the role of society at large is in the face of what they perceive to be an injustice, regardless of the religious underpinnings. Recently in Aceh, laws have been proposed that call for death by stoning as a punishment for adultery and flogging for other offences. Human Rights Watch (HRW) has condemned these laws as constituting torture. It would be wholly inappropriate to say that the HRW should not interfere because they may not understand Islamic law. We must remember that in the case of Kartika’s caning, there was international condemnation apart from the outcry amongst members of the public in Malaysia. In this day and age, what we do in Malaysia or what anyone does in any part of the world will be open to comment and scrutiny by anyone in any part of the world. We should just get used to it.

There is a more compelling response. No one can, nor should they ever be permitted to, shield from scrutiny any action that impinges or imposes on the dignity and the physical and mental well-being of another. The dangers of allowing that are obvious. Just imagine if that had occurred in the case of the Internal Security Act (ISA) in Malaysia. We all fight the ISA together even if most of us are unlikely to ever be subjected to that legislation. We fight it on principle alone and because we do not believe any of our brothers and sisters should be subjected to it.

To me it is very clear. If we do not speak up for those who are afraid or reluctant or for those who are weak in the face of what we see as unfair treatment, then we betray our covenant to each other as a society of civilised peoples.

I lament the lack of leadership from the politicians on matters that touch upon religion. Few politicians (from either side of the divide) have shown the courage to take on the task of confronting the issues. To their credit, PAS has apparently said they are prepared to hold a dialogue with JAG on the Kartika caning, and we should take them up on this offer. Surely this is a preferred option to threats and intimidation.

Amartya Sen, a nobel prize winner in Economics in his book “The Idea of Justice” attributes the absence of a backlash on the Indian Muslim population in India after the Mumbai terrorist attacks in November 2008 to a great extent to “the public discussion that followed the attacks to which both Muslims and non-Muslims contributed richly”. A valuable lesson is to be learnt from this.

We must fight the urge to constantly shut down discussion. The temptation to do so as an easy way to avoid thorny issues may always be present. However, therein lies the road to misunderstanding and isolation. We must appreciate that the world is changing and that there is a clamour for dialogue as a means of fostering understanding.

Malaysia in all its multi-ethnic glory is well placed to set an example for the rest of the world in promoting peace and understanding, where people of various cultures and belief do not merely “tolerate” each other, but live in harmony. We must leave a legacy for the generations to come that when we had to face up to a difficult task in our history, we chose the path of openness and dialogue rather than force and suppression.

Let this be the start of our golden age of discourse. Let us all talk to one another. More importantly, let us listen.

Published on TMI

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