Harapan’s vexing delay in revoking oppressive laws

    (Updated )

    QUESTION TIME | Almost seven months ago Pakatan Harapan came into power on the back of a manifesto of 100 promises of which number 26 and 27 involved human rights and the rolling back of oppressive laws. But the reforms are worrisomely delayed with not even a strategy or timetable announced.

    Umno and its new-found mate PAS will “celebrate” at Dataran Merdeka on Saturday the government’s backing down on its commitment to sign the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination or Icerd, a clear setback for the progress of human rights and its recognition. All informed people know that ratifying the Icerd does not affect the rights of Malays or anybody else's.

    While Ahmad Zahid Hamidi, Abdul Hadi Awang and others crow about their “victory”, no less than the Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad will lead a human rights rally on the same day, barely 10 kilometres away in Petaling Jaya, organised by the human rights commission, Suhakam. But what will Mahathir be able to crow about?

    He and his entire cabinet backed down on the commitment to sign Icerd given to the UN at a recent address because of blackmail and threats by Umno and PAS without so much as trying to explain clearly why Icerd was no threat to bumiputera rights. They gave in to those who were exploiting race by lying blatantly about Icerd.

    And then there was the Seafield temple incident. Mahathir’s Home Minister Muhyiddin Yassin announced that the cabinet had agreed to the use of the hated and much misused Sedition Act to handle the issue, handing victory on a platter to those who have argued for decades that the Sedition Act was necessary.

    This makes it that much easier for those who advocate for the act to argue for its continuance. This will probably include Mahathir, Muhyiddin and their Bersatu allies who have a disproportionate number of cabinet seats compared to the parliamentary seats they won - just 13 out of 51 seats contested. Yet another setback for Harapan’s reform agenda.

    Mahathir himself has mentioned that much of the oppressive legislation cannot be removed for various reasons citing the necessity of government secrecy and the need to have legislation to control gangsterism. But the point is that such oppressive laws can be used to control, arrest and imprison ordinary folk, with no recourse to the courts.

    This raises the question of whether Mahathir is truly committed to law reform by revoking some acts and modifying others. If he is not, we can say goodbye to such reforms until he goes and Harapan de facto leader Anwar Ibrahim comes into power, if all goes well, 17 months from now with agreements made within Harapan.

    With his arrest and detention in 1998, Anwar is likely to be much more open to law reform as a person who suffered directly from such oppressive laws. This compared to Mahathir who previously used the laws to oppress as in the Operation Lallang of 1987 (when over 100 people were arrested ostensibly to reduce racial tensions).

    Mahathir, however, should give weight to the manifesto under which Harapan was elected and he became prime minister which clearly and unambiguously called for the revocation of certain laws and the amendment of others. It is morally incumbent upon him and the Harapan cabinet to do so and if Mahathir is reluctant, then other Harapan leaders must make their views known and remind him of the promises made.

    Also under the so-called Council of Eminent Persons, wide-ranging institutional reforms were proposed by a committee but none of it has been disclosed and there has been no further talk, reflecting a troubling reluctance to deal with some of the most fundamental of Malaysia’s...

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