The Malaysian Bar's International Malaysia Law Conference ("IMLC") 2018 is taking place from 14 to 17 Aug 2018 at The Royale Chulan Kuala Lumpur.
by Joachim Xavier and Ko Chia Chea, Members of the Bar
Living up to the title of the session, the five panellists were indeed subjected to “hard talk” led by the unrelenting moderator Dato’ Dr Professor Gurdial Singh Nijar, President of the National Human Rights Society (“HAKAM”). The panellists, consisting of members of well–known NGOs in Malaysia, faced off with tough questions from both the moderator and the floor.
Kicking off the session, Dato’ Gurdial questioned the panellists on the source of their funding, drawing attention to public and governmental allegations that NGOs are frequently controlled by the agenda of their funders, especially foreign funders. In answering this allegation, the panel took pains to explain the benevolent purposes for which their NGOs exist. It was argued that for the most part, NGOs are funded by members of the public who believe in their causes. One panellist admitted to having received overseas funding but denied that they were controlled by the funders. Shahrul Aman Mohamad Saari, Acting Chairperson of BERSIH 2.0, said his organisation received a “miniscule” amount of funding from George Soros (international investor and philanthropist) that was used for democracy–related training in Malaysia. Other panel members cited non–monetary contributions such as pro bono legal services by the legal community.
Dato’ Gurdial took Cynthia Gabriel, Director for the Center to Combat Corruption & Cronyism (“C4”), to task for appearing to have had a cordial and close relationship with the leadership of the Malaysian Anti–Corruption Commission (“MACC”) of the previous administration. He pointed out that it was C4’s stated role to hold such agencies accountable for their duties and functions. Unfazed, Cynthia explained that C4’s initiatives with MACC did not compromise C4’s role as an NGO but instead contributed to the strengthening of MACC’s independence
as a public agency, accountable to the rakyat. Furthermore, following the breakout of the 1MDB scandal, the MACC needed public and NGO support to take on the former Prime Minister who was embroiled in the scandal.
The recent statement by YB Puan Hajjah Fuziah Salleh, Deputy Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department (Religion), that members of the LGBT community should use the disabled–friendly toilets as a temporary measure before they are fully accepted by society, came into sharp focus when Dato’ Gurdial questioned Rozana Isa, Executive Director of Sisters in Islam (“SIS”) for the “inelegant silence” on the issue. Rozana in reply said the issue was an important one and that they were in consultation with the LGBT community before issuing a public statement on it.
Touching on the issue of the right to peacefully assemble, the members of the panel were put on the spot when asked to comment whether they would now comply with the provisions of the Peaceful Assembly Act 2012 (eg venue and pre–event notification requirements) given that they had repeatedly refused to comply with the same during Barisan Nasional’s rule. Shahrul Aman stressed that BERSIH 2.0 has always been law–abiding regardless of who held the seat of government. He said his organisation had made written representations to the present government “without fear or favour” on issues concerning the right of assembly and they would continue to pursue the issues until a resolution was enshrined in legislation.
Responding to Dato’ Gurdial’s question on what was being done by NGOs advocating for the rights of women, particularly with regard to holding the current administration to its manifesto promise of increasing women representation in the Government to 30%, Executive Director of the Women’s Aid Organisation (“WAO”) Sumitra Visvanathan, said her organisation and the Joint Action Group for Gender Equality (“JAG”) had issued public statements. She admitted that at this stage the result was limited to a heightened level of public awareness on the issue of gender equality in the country. Sumitra also fielded a question from a legal practitioner as to why women rights–based NGOs condemned lawyers who represented husbands who resorted to section 489 of the Penal Code to bring a criminal action against another man for enticing a married woman. Carefully side–stepping the crux of the question, Sumitra said that the ,offence was an archaic one that enabled men to use legal means to control the choices women make about their relationships.
It is commonly accepted that NGOs rely heavily on public goodwill as well as the support of their constituents ie the class of persons they claim to represent. However, questions were raised as to whether all NGOs truly had the support of their constituents particularly in the case of Muslim women in Malaysia who largely did not support the controversial positions taken by SIS. Rozana Isa acknowledged that SIS did not enjoy wide support among Muslim women in Malaysia but said the organisation was not deterred as its focus was not the gaining of public support but to put forward its understanding of Islam vis–à–vis Muslim women in Malaysia, question unfair policies, and ask the difficult questions that others would rather not ask. In the same vein, Dr Colin Nicholas, Coordinator of the Center for Orang Asli Concerns (“COAC”), said his organisation was not concerned about numerical support but instead was committed to empowering and organising the community to confront the issues that affected them.
The rights of children were not forgotten during the session as the moderator sought answers as to what proactive steps NGOs have taken to end child marriages in Malaysia. Sumitra took the opportunity to read a statement that WAO will be issuing soon to condemn in no certain terms, the Ministry of Women, Family and Community Development’s delay in coming out to denounce child marriages. She said WAO and JAG are committed to push for urgent reforms in this area and that this was non–negotiable.
In conclusion, the panellists proved their mettle as formidable activists, handling the tough questions and, in doing so, inspired confidence that they are more than equipped to face the task of making this country a better place for all.