Assalamu’alaikum warahmatullahi wabarakatuh
Mengadap Paduka Seri Ayahanda
Duli Yang Maha Mulia Yang di-Pertuan Besar Negeri Sembilan
Tuanku Muhriz ibni Almarhum Tuanku Munawir
Mengadap Paduka Seri Bonda
Duli Yang Maha Mulia Tunku Ampuan Besar Negeri Sembilan
Tuanku Aishah Rohani binti Almarhum Tengku Besar Mahmud
Ampun Tuanku. Paduka anakanda menjunjung kasih Paduka Seri Ayahanda dan Bonda berdua berangkat mencemar duli ke ucapan paduka anakanda di Persidangan Undang-Undang Malaysia Antarabangsa pada pagi ini.
Paduka anakanda mohon sembah untuk mengalu-alukan dif-dif yang lain dan seterusnya berucap dalam Bahada Inggeris. Menjunjung kasih Tuanku.
Yang Amat Berhormat Perdana Menteri Malaysia Dato’ Seri Anwar bin Ibrahim
Paduka Kekanda Yang Amat Mulia Tunku Besar Seri Menanti Tunku Ali Redhauddin ibni Tuanku Muhriz
Yang Amat Arif Ketua Hakim Tun Tengku Maimun binti Tuan Mat
President of the Malaysian Bar Karen Cheah
It is great a privilege to be here. I thank the legal fraternity – and the President of the Malaysian Bar Karen Cheah in particular – for inviting this non-lawyer back to IMLC for a third time to address such distinguished guests.
What does one say for ten minutes between the Chief Justice and the Prime Minister of Malaysia? For some of our history the head of the judiciary and the head of government did not enjoy a good relationship. “Hang the judges!” was allegedly a mantra of one former Prime Minister. Those were dark days for our democracy which had far reaching consequences on our country for decades to come. We are dealing with those consequences in many guises today, as weakened institutions have enabled corruption and a culture of patronage to take root, its participants and beneficiaries now obviously resisting any attempts at reform.
Yet, it is still symbolic of the healing that has taken place that today both can speak in the same morning. It hasn’t happened often in the history of the IMLC: in 2012 and before that, in 1979. Today, the CJ and PMX are separated only by me, speaking in a civil society capacity.
As I mentioned in the inaugural Parliamentary Speaker’s Lecture Series, the biggest and most durable change in Malaysian democratic life in the last decade has been the growth of civil society. The Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) is today twelve years old, but so many other organisations — some older than us, most younger than us — have mushroomed and become familiar contributors to the process of policymaking.
One particular phenomenon that I’ve noticed especially during the period of political frog hopping is that new ministers are very keen to engage with civil society. If I were cynical I would say it’s because they know they have little legitimacy, so involving NGOs and think tanks is a good way to show consultation and inclusion.
But more importantly it is because the capacity and track record of civil society organisations continues to build. The rakyat increasingly sees civil society as a reliable interface between government and people that distils the best research and policy proposals towards reform. Indeed, IDEAS and our partners — and competitors — now work with the best academics from inside and outside Malaysia, with researchers and practitioners in ever more niche fields, the diplomatic community and international organisations, while always paying foremost attention to the needs of targeted beneficiaries, whether they are Orang Asli children seeking a better education, B40 families struggling amid the cost of living crisis, or young Malaysians yearning for job opportunities.
While policy research across all sectors — from education, health, the economy, the environment and climate change, housing, tax, trade — are the bread and butter of most think tanks, with some specialising in particular areas, the legitimacy and efficacy of all these efforts ultimately relies on some key fundamentals. Two are the Federal Constitution and the independence of institutions.
I salute the Chief Justice for being guided by, adhering to and making profoundly sensible interpretations from, the Federal Constitution. Her judgments and speeches show that our Federal Constitution is still valid and workable in our multi-racial, multi-religious and multi-cultural country.
In particular, as Muslim countries all around the world face domestic and international pressure for reflection and change, we should be grateful that our Federal Constitution is able to accommodate the religious traditions of citizens, and uphold traditional institutions such as our constitutional monarchy alongside modern concepts of parliamentary democracy, although as I have argued before, we can find democratic antecedents in the Hukum Kanun Melaka, the Batu Bersurat Terengganu and the adat perpatih of Negeri Sembilan. In these Muslim polities we find constitutional limits of authority, separation of powers, decentralisation, and the rule of law. We see respect for human dignity, we see free trade being celebrated, and we see good governance being praised.
Today of course there are other specific innovations that need to be reconciled. In her speech Tengku Maimun spoke about the goal of integrating technology, in particular Artificial Intelligence, in amplifying access to justice.
While it is of course the right of any citizen to imagine an alternate vision for our country, I do find it sad that some people so loathe our constitutional arrangements to the extent of advocating some sort of theocratic or socialist revolution instead. I have long advocated for a much better teaching of civic education in our schools so that every Malaysian understands how important our constitution is: why we have institutions such as Parliament, the Conference of Rulers, how elections work, what powers the police has, and why the anti-corruption commission should be truly independent.
As precarious moments during the Covid-19 pandemic and intense political contestation — or rather, prostitution — showed, the constitutional monarchy can be a most crucial check and balance. Indeed, a number of diplomats told me that if not for the role played by the King after the last general election, we might not even have had a government, based on the experience of other countries.
Having said that, of course not every institution should depend on the hereditary principle. The writers of the Federal Constitution took careful consideration in designing how to appoint senior judges and heads of commissions, and this spirit should continue today in the appointments of statutory bodies and even Government Linked Companies today — if indeed we are to continue having so many GLCs.
I would highlight in particular that public confidence should be maximised as much as possible when it comes to offices such as commissioners of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, Election Commission and Human Rights Commission, as well senior postings in the civil service, police force and armed forces.
At the same time, my colleagues and I at IDEAS applaud the institutional reforms that have occurred in Parliament in recent years. Most significant among them is the creation of Parliamentary Select Committees (PSCs) and All Party Parliamentary Groups (APPGs). These are truly groundbreaking in enabling backbench MPs and senators to have a greater role in considering, formulating and evaluating policy.
Indeed, we have interacted with politicians on both sides who take their new portfolios very seriously and contribute to the debate quite apart from what their party leaders tell them. In the Malaysian context, this truly is a major step forward towards representative democracy. PSCs and APPGs are also a crucial conduit for civil society, academicians and activists to interact with elected representatives.
Here it might seem apt to recall the words of the first Yang di-Pertuan Agong, a barrister who was also the grandfather of the present Yang di-Pertuan Besar of Negeri Sembilan. Addressing the first ever session of the Parliament of the Federation of Malaya in 1959, he urged MPs to “conduct your affairs in such a way that Parliament will be a shining beacon of democracy at its brightest and best.”
I hope all MPs continue to take this urging seriously. The Prime Minister for his part has committed to further reforms, with regard to the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, Whistleblower Protection, separating the roles of the Attorney General and Public Prosecutor, and Judicial Appointments. To further encourage his fulfilment of these commitments, shall we give him a rousing round of applause?
I believe it is with these fundamentals in place — respect for the constitution and the independence of institutions — that all other policymaking and execution can happen in the best circumstances. This is because all stakeholders and the public at large will understand how and why policies are made and how much consultation there is. And once such policies are implemented and executed, checks and balances can monitor and comment on their progress.
A crucial component of the latter is of course a free press, and I look forward also to the establishment of the promised Malaysian Media Council. At the same time I remind my activist friends that some degree of regulation especially on social media is reasonable in this day and age, for we have seen the devastating impact of provocations of violence in democracies around the world. It will always be difficult to always draw the line between security and liberty, but that is why eternal vigilance is the price we pay.
We can see what happens sometimes when the policies are not well thought through. My colleagues and I advocating for children’s and refugee rights are pleased with the promised amendment to allow citizenship for children born overseas to Malaysian mothers married to non-Malaysian fathers. However, we were profoundly disappointed by other amendments — specifically the removal of Section 1(e) of Part II in the Second Schedule of the Federal Constitution — that could severely exacerbate the issue of statelessness among children. After pressure from civil society, former ministers and now even among the cabinet, I am hopeful that this appalling proposal is eradicated so that Malaysia can uphold its responsibilities according to the United Nations Conventions on the Rights of the Child which the Government ratified in 1995.
Ladies and Gentlemen: let us be real. State elections are coming up. Whatever the results, there will always be continued politicking. Almost nothing one says or does, is immune to political condemnation. Provocateurs will always manage to find or manipulate something.
In this social media age, we must find the confidence and resilience to defend what our predecessors worked so hard to build. It is incumbent on all of us to respect, treasure and understand the intentions of our founding fathers.
We are still a young country, but I believe that if the words of the Federal Constitution, the spirit of Merdeka, and indeed the spirit of the formation of Malaysia, prevail, then we will last and thrive for many more generations to come.