Saturday, February 6, 2010

Ignorance is not an option

This article was written on 28 January 2010 for the Malaysian Bar website. 

MyConstitutionWhen the Constitutional Law Committee (ConstiLC) decided to adopt “Merakyatkan Perlembagaan” as its slogan, it had good reasons. On top of trying to sensitise the Malaysian population on the content of the Federal Constitution, the ConstiLC upholds the notion that the Federal Constitution belongs to all Malaysian citizens regardless of age, gender, race, religion, political affiliation, sexual orientation, economic or social class, physical ability or the lack of it, etc.

Since the launch of the MyConstitution Campaign (the Campaign) in November 2009, the ConstiLC continues to receive on average, one request a week from various civil society groups to provide talks or workshops on the Federal Constitution. So far, the ConstiLC hasn’t turned down any of them.

On January 19, St. Francis Xavier (SFX) church hosted the ConstiLC by organising a “Conversations on the Constitution” session entitled “Relevance of the Federal Constitution: How does it affect us?”. 100 parishioners turned up. It was to be the first in a series of forums to be held at SFX; each coinciding with a theme of the Campaign’s nine phases. (For those who were not privy to the nitty-gritty details regarding the organisation of this talk, it was organised way before the High Court decision on the “A-word” was delivered.)

The panel speakers were from the ConstiLC; Edmund Bon, Paul Linus Andrews, Shad Saleem Faruqi and Leong Yeng Kong. Maha Balakrishnan made her debut as moderator for the evening and her questions ranged from something as straightforward as: “What are the things that people take for granted but are guaranteed by the Federal Constitution?” to others which were not so simple but instead, provoked much thought.

For instance, she asked,”What happens when there is a conflict between the rights of two citizens?” and proceeded to give the example of how the right to freedom of religion under Article 11 of the Federal Constitution is balanced between different citizens in a community when there is a dispute over the use of a loudspeaker for azan prayers and the ringing of the bells in a temple.

In responding to this question, Shad admitted that there is no easy way to resolve such dispute. However, he believes that it is important to step into the shoes of others and learn to look at the world through their eyes when confronted with a delicate issue such as those related to Article 11. He quoted former UN Secretary-General, Dag Hammarskjold, who once said, “to be truly objective, one must be subjective”.

Shad recalled how Malaysian leaders in the 1950s were fond of dialogues and there is a need for the leaders of today to return to that quality and spirit. In his usual calm and dignified manner, Professor Shad said, “Nobody got everything [at that time] but everybody got something.”

Both the panelists and audience were candid and honest which made the talk worthwhile. It was clear that many are concerned about the government’s lack of effective implementation of fundamental rights and liberties under the Federal Constitution. Some went as far as to question the relevance of having the Campaign to promote constitutionalism. Losing faith in their religion may not be an option, but many have clearly lost faith in the government’s ability to rule the country justly and intelligently.

A disconcerting revelation however was the overwhelming sense of hopelessness and helplessness felt by some of the parishioners in terms of how far they think Malaysia has moved away from the ideals that were laid out by our founding fathers. Such is their conviction that many are willing to contemplate migration.

When the floor was opened for questions and answers, it was obvious that most people were not as eager to understand the constitutional aspects of Madam Justice Lau Bee Lan’s recent judgment on the “A-word” issue as they were anxious to know whether as Malaysians, are we ready for change? Despite the air of frustration, all speakers remained optimistic. Each one of them had something inspiring to impart.

Leong believes that enlightenment will free Malaysians from fear. It would be wrong for the government to keep the population ignorant, and to instill a sense of fear in them. Instead, the government should be the one to fear its citizens.

Edmund shared Leong’s sentiment by echoing the need for greater empowerment of and activism by the people. He said the results of the general election in 8 March 2008 are significant proof of this.

When one member of the congregation asked whether this Campaign is too idealistic and the ConstiLC ignorant of the realities facing the nation today, Shad answered, “Facts should not guide ideals. It should be ideals that guide facts. Otherwise, we’ll never move. We’ll remain static. It is our duty to prepare the people to reach those ideals.”

He continued to provide a personal anecdote. “Sometimes, I could be teaching a class of 100 students. Perhaps, I won’t be able to inspire all of them. But if say, 10 students managed to show interest and potential, it is enough for me. It is something.”

Paul told the story of Emmett Hill, a 14 year-old African American who was murdered in Mississippi for purportedly whistling at a Caucasian woman. The main suspects were all acquitted but later admitted to the murder. The murder of Emmett Hill eventually became one of the leading events that inspired the American Civil Rights Movement.

Hill’s murder took place in 1955; 179 years after the independence of the US. That was how long it took and even longer before the first African American became President.

Paul asked, “If not now, when?” The point made was to show the insignificance of time when something is right and necessary. Emmet Hill’s violent death could have been avoided if the rights movement had started way earlier.

It was clear at the end that all speakers agreed the Campaign is necessary for everyone - Parliamentarians, Cabinet members, civil servants, Judges or those sitting in the audience; because change can only happen when there is awareness and it starts from us. We are ultimately responsible for all the changes made to the Federal Constitution. Who we vote into power also determines the destiny of our country.

Whether the speakers managed to present their views convincingly, the talk was effective as it allowed different people to express and share their fears and doubts in a safe space, something much needed in this country.

In addition, it is comforting that at so many levels, we witnessed genuine fellowship displayed by Muslims and Catholics under the same roof. Importantly, it finally dispelled my own ignorant assumption that Muslim Malaysians are barred from stepping into churches.

As Maha would say, “Knowledge is power and ignorance is not an option.”

Let’s all take this wisdom with us as we start this new year.

For more information on the MyConstitution Campaign, please click here.

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