Monday, March 15, 2010

What our future leaders think about the MyConstitution Campaign workshop

MyConsti_logo We’ve perhaps read or heard of the Reconstituting Earth V02 workshop carried out as part of the MyConstitution Campaign activities by the Constitutional Law Committee of the Bar Council. But have we heard of the participants’ views on the workshop?

Ka Ea, the Executive Officer of the Constitutional Law Committee, gets a chance to speak to some of the participants at the MyConstitution Youth Legal Awareness workshop organised with Sisters in Islam (SIS) on 6th and 7th March 2010 at the Armada Hotel, Petaling Jaya.

“What gives meaning to rights is if people are aware of them and will fight to defend them.”

LINGS, a 25-year old from Penang, graduated from the Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia (UKM) last year. He studied law and takes a keen interest in human rights and public interest issues. It’s no wonder that the Constitutional Law Committee has spotted him in various other workshops around town. To say that he might be a workshop junkie is an understatement.

Lings does more than just attend workshops. He is a member of Kumpulan Aktivis Mahasiswa Independen (KAMI) whose aim is to create awareness amongst university students on national or public interest and human rights issues. Apart from conducting workshops, they disseminate information and encourage students to engage in active discussion on literally any issues through a blog called Diskopi (, an acronym for Diskusi Santai Kopi. 

When you speak to Lings, you will soon realise that he is a true believer in education being a key solution to most problems in Malaysia. When asked what angers him most about our country, he replied spontaneously, “Corruption. Corruption is a heinous crime. Education will solve the problem.

This may explain why he has such a penchant for workshops. Lings told me that he has conducted 2 workshops on human rights advocacy for KAMI. By participating in other workshops, he learns a lot and hence will be able to impart this knowledge to others.

He said he has enjoyed the MyConstitution Youth Legal Awareness workshop because different people with different backgrounds were able to come together and learn from each other without fear of repercussion when speaking up openly and freely. He said he finally understood the strong connection between civil and political rights and economic, social and cultural rights.

He said that it’s wonderful that lawyers are doing something for the layperson. This shows that they are “becoming effective intellectuals” rather than just intellectuals.

Lings also commented that the hotel was too posh. He said this while digging into his dessert taken from a generous buffet spread serving a sampling of more than 10 types of dessert during lunch time. I teased him that he wouldn’t have been able to enjoy these if it was held somewhere else.

He grinned sheepishly and said the organisers could have held the workshop in a community hall and used the cost to fund more participants. I nodded my head shamefully but deep inside hoped that one day, Lings and I could be good friends.

I then turned to HAFIZUDDIN who was sitting next to Lings. Hafizuddin is a 21-year old, second year law student in UKM. He is also a member of KAMI. The petite, bespectacled and bubbly student is also fast becoming a familiar face within the activist circle. He was last spotted at the Conversations on the Constitution forum on Federal State Relations at the Annexe Gallery on 11 March.

Hafizuddin’s political peeve is the lack of independence in our judiciary system, in which he considers as the most important branch of our constitutional institution. He said since Malaysia does not really have absolute separation of powers within the three main institutions, the judiciary cannot afford to be partial. He went on to quote Montesquieu’s infamous words, “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” It sends a chill down my spine when I hear young Malaysians quoting old philosophies from the Western world.

Hafizuddin believes that the only way to change the state of our country is through the Federal Constitution and that is the exercise of a two-third majority vote in Parliament. This means, it’s important for Malaysians to learn the significance of their votes.

He said that KAMI conducted a survey at the UKM campus not too long ago. 150 respondents participated and the results showed only 5% of the students are interested in constitutional issues. Of those who are interested and know what’s going on in the country, they do not know what they can do to help make that change.

After talking to Hafizuddin, I have a strong feeling that together with his buddy, Lings (both of them appeared inseparable during the workshop), they will change the landscape of youth activism in universities.

JOANNE is a 22-year old, final year psychology student at HELP College. She volunteers at the All Actions Women Association of Malaysia (AWAM) as a psychological counsellor. She said that the workshop has been useful because she didn’t even have rudimentary knowledge of the law prior to this. At AWAM, sometimes she receives calls from the public asking her about the legal aspect of human rights and she was not able to provide help or answers. 

She said now that she has attended the workshop, she finds it bizarre that nobody within her circle of friends or family members ever talk about the Federal Constitution or even human rights.

She finally sees how some cultural teachings have manifested in ignorance amongst so many people. From the Reconstituting Earth V02 workshop, she discovers her own prejudices which she wouldn’t have otherwise. For example, she always thought that all Malays will defend their rights to special privileges. Since the workshop, she has talked to some Malay participants and realised that many do not actually support these discriminatory practises. Many are ashamed and some even admitted that Syariah Law can violate rights.

We’re living in a dangerous society where people are forming their own perception and understanding of things. We’re no longer good role models for our future generation. Parents, teachers and the government are not teaching us to cast away these prejudices but instead, reinforcing them.”

Joanne admitted that she did not know anything about the Federal Constitution prior to this workshop. However, when she sat through the session learning about the different types of rights, she realised that in fact, there isn’t any need for anyone to teach people to think about human rights. People have the ability to think about it on their own because in the end, a lot of the issues discussed are related to each and everyone’s life. Instead, what is needed is for people to start talking about it.

She said that she doesn’t want the knowledge gained from the workshop to stop at the point when the workshop ends. She will talk to her family, friends and acquaintances about what she has learned from the workshop. She also hopes that Malaysians will learn to have the courage to voice out when there is an abuse.

Joanne left behind a powerful quote, “What gives meaning to rights is if people are aware of them and will fight to defend them.”

Finally, I talked to AZLAN, a 22-year old law student at the Universiti Utara Malaysia (UUM). Azlan looks like someone who loves to travel. He lives in Johor but studies in Kedah and he travelled all the way to Petaling Jaya for the workshop alone.

I enjoyed talking to this soft-spoken and eloquent student. In his slightly Americanised accent, he told me about his own life struggle. When his fellow classmates learned that he would be attending a workshop organised by SIS, they called him a heretic. This was not the first time.

He started bearing the cruel taunts of his classmates since he did research on the Lina Joy case. When he did a presentation on the case, many students were shocked and disgusted by his conclusion that freedom of religion applies to Muslims in Malaysia. Since then, he’s been called an infidel and many other hurtful names.

I asked him what gives him the strength to go on studying in such an insufferable environment?  He said that only God knows his true intention and that’s enough for him. He is glad that he is able to participate in a workshop where he could share his thoughts with like-minded people. He is not able to speak about issues like this at home since none of his family members try to understand him.

When speaking with Azlan, he reminded me of myself when I was younger. I remember how difficult and devastating it was living a completely different life from the ones my parents wished for me.

Azlan said that if there is one piece of advice he could give the world, it would be to urge people to try to understand each other before making any judgment. He said it’s important for people to study, analyse and understand a specific issue before forming opinions based solely on emotion. Many people have suffered as a result of this.

Azlan’s story teaches me that sometimes, we forget how difficult it is for youths to express themselves. In our quest to teach them to be more aware and vocal about their rights, we have forgotten to teach them how to bridge that gap between themselves and the older generations. We have forgotten how to understand them.

Perhaps, it also tells us that the MyConstitution Campaign shouldn’t be limited to the young ones only.

This article was taken from the Malaysian Bar website. This was written as a web report for the MyConstitution Campaign on 15 March 2010.

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