To be at peace with ourselves, reclaim truth and justice

This has been a year of decade anniversaries. It is fitting that the theme of this year’s Human Rights week and exhibition by the KL & Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall is: “Reclaiming Truth & Justice”. Why is this theme relevant and important?

We stand at the cusp of a visionary year, 2020. Now, Vision 2020 has a very beautiful phrase: “… establishing a united Malaysian nation… at peace with itself.”

Although this was plagiarised from Martin Luther King’s 1964 Nobel Peace Prize Lecture, we will forgive whoever wrote that speech when it was read out by Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad in 1991.

To be “at peace with itself” in 2020, our nation has to bring to closure some vexatious unfinished business. The victims of injustice cannot rest in peace until truth and justice have been restored to them.

These include:

  1. Batang Kali massacre in 1948 (nearly 70 years ago);
  2. Lim Lian Geok whose citizenship was revoked in 1961 (nearly 60 years ago);
  3. May 13 tragedy (50 years ago);
  4. Memali massacre (more than 30 years ago);
  5. Teoh Beng Hock’s death (10 years ago); and,
  6. Enforced disappearance of Pastor Koh, Amri Che Mat (two years ago).

And if our society is to be at peace with itself, wrongs must be righted in other key areas in which injustices remain an obstacle to the realisation of the democratic principles on which our nation was founded.

These include:

  1. Ops Lalang and the sacking of the Lord President and three Supreme Court judges (30 years);
  2. Local government elections suspended in 1965 (more than 50 years ago);
  3. Unified Examination Certificate (UEC) non-recognition (more than 40 years ago);
  4. Curtailment of grants to Tunku Abdul Rahman University College or TAR UC (the last 2 years).

Justice has no expiry date

The argument presented by the British authorities, 10 years ago, that they would not carry out an inquiry into the Batang Kali massacre of 1948 because it happened 70 years ago is untenable. As was commented at the time, justice has no expiry date.

I recall that British Queen’s Counsel Michael Beloff told our Malaysian courts: “Let justice be done though the heavens fall.” The Romans said it hundreds of years ago — “Fiat justitia ruat caelum” — and it does sound more profound in Latin.

Will the heavens fall if all these cases of grave injustice are once and for all brought to a closure? Seventy years? What’s 70 years?

Didn’t the Japanese pay compensation to the Korean “comfort women” for what they did more than 70 years ago? Then consider the Africans asking for reparation for slavery which happened more than 300 years ago. Indeed, justice has no expiry date.

Memali massacre on a par with Batang Kali Massacre

Early on Nov 19, 1985, the Malaysian police under the direction of the home minister laid siege to a house in the Kedah village of Memali where PAS leader Ibrahim Libya and his comrades were staying to resist his arrest under the Internal Security Act.

There were no lengthy negotiations with the besieged and by noon, 14 men, including Ibrahim Libya, lay dead. Four police personnel also died, apparently through friendly fire.

There were several arrests under the ISA among the survivors.

Now, if we had an Independent Police Complaints & Misconduct Commission (IPCMC), the procedure would be for the IPCMC to step in to investigate how the casualties were inflicted and if the police could have avoided the killings. Unfortunately, we can only surmise and conjecture about why the police did not do more to prevent the bloodshed since they had the house surrounded with hundreds of police personnel.

Certainly, the Memali massacre in 1985 shares the same moral shame as the Batang Kali massacre of 1948 when 24 innocent villagers were massacred by British troops at Batang Kali.

Instead of a remorseful apology to Ibrahim Libya and the other deceased, the Barisan Nasional used the Memali massacre as a spectre to warn the electorate against extremist or deviant Muslim sects, just as the May 13 pogrom is continually resurrected as a warning and threat to the Chinese electorate who choose to vote for the opposition. It is time for truth and reconciliation over these tragic events in our history.

Towards truth & reconciliation

Reparation should not just be seen in monetary terms. It is about justice. It is about atonement. It is also about reconciliation, helping the victims and their families to come to terms with the past and to face the future after an acknowledgement of wrongdoing by the perpetrators.

I brought up this point in my book on “May 13: Declassified Documents on the Malaysian Riots of 1969”. We commemorated the 50th anniversary of the May 13 tragedy this year. Fifty years after the tragic event, we still don’t know how many died, who died and precisely how they died.

We want restorative justice to heal relations rather than retributive justice to get even. But for reconciliation, there must be acknowledgement, to be followed by forgiveness and healing.

Thus, at a Truth & Reconciliation Commission, victims, witnesses, perpetrators can tell their stories without fear of prosecution.

In the case of Operation Lalang, the prime minister and home minister at the time, Mahathir, has not even shown any remorse by apologising for the dastardly deed and especially the assault on the judiciary in 1988.

Time to declassify our secrets

Fifty years after an event, “New Malaysia” should have the confidence to declassify Cabinet and Special Branch documents on tragedies such as May 13 in 1969. This is not just of academic interest but concerns the national collective conscience so that our society can be “at peace with itself”.

The new Pakatan Harapan government has still to make good its 14the general election promise of introducing a Freedom of Information Act to promote transparency and the truth. We have to address past human rights abuses, mass atrocities and severe trauma.

High time to ratify International Conventions

A society cannot be at peace with itself if it refuses to ratify the International Convention on Eradication of Racial Discrimination (ICERD) when South Africa has long eradicated racial discrimination. Refusal to ratify ICERD is an admission that we practise racial discrimination.

We also have to sign the Rome Statute on the International Criminal Court to ensure that crimes against humanity, such as those that were seen in the May 13 tragedy, do not recur. To refuse to do so is to condone impunity.

Detention without trial is not rule of law

The new Pakatan Harapan government claims to be serious about implementing the rule of law in this country without fear or favour instead of the arbitrary application of the law which we have witnessed during the Barisan Nasional years.

However, against this principle, the continued use of the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act (Sosma), Prevention of Crime Act 1959 (Poca), Prevention of Terrorism Act 2015 (Pota) and Dangerous Drugs Act 1952 (DDA) has been proven to inflict injustice and fails to be useful for crime prevention. These laws are, like the ISA, merely shortcuts for enforcement officers to bypass the rigours of the criminal justice system in the execution of their duties and responsibilities.

As happened with Operation Lalang 30 years ago, the continued use of these laws only casts doubt on the integrity of the Royal Malaysia Police, the Pakatan Harapan’s commitment to systemic reform and the legitimacy of our criminal justice system.

The culture of impunity which we see in the case of the death of Teoh Beng Hock 10 years ago and the enforced disappearance of Pastor Koh, Amri Che Mat cannot be allowed to go on.

Democratic governance: Reclaim our local government elections

The PH government claims that we cannot afford to bring back local government elections at the moment because we can’t afford them. This justification for putting off local council elections is laughable when we bear in mind that even before we became independent, we had our very first democratic election — the Kuala Lumpur municipal elections of 1952.

At independence in 1957, our GDP per capita was around US$800. Our GDP per capita is now US$10,000 and we are supposed to be almost a high-income society but we are told we can’t afford local government elections.

One would expect that as our society becomes more mature in the “new” Malaysia, democratic principles of accountability at the local community level would be considered the highest of priorities and the new normal.

Local government elections are long overdue. In the democratic tradition, taxation cannot be justified without representation. Ratepayers must be represented on the governing body which determines how that money is to be spent.

This is a fundamental precept of parliamentary governance which is critically applicable at local-level government. It is to satisfy the requirement in a democratic society for greater pluralism, participation and responsiveness.

Can we afford not to recognise the UEC and reclaim LLG’s citizenship?

Finally, the economic benefits that the nation can experience by recognising the UEC and reinstating Lim Lian Geok’s citizenship will also go a long way to strengthening national unity. An enlightened democratic and progressive government would recognise such benefits and take these simple steps to right these injustices.

In doing so the country can provide access to a larger pool of human talent and simultaneously build trust in the government.

Let’s reclaim truth & justice in Vision 2020

There is no better way to start the new decade than to reclaim truth and justice in all these tragic and unfortunate episodes in our nation’s history.

We therefore call for:

  1. Leaders apologising and showing remorse for the injustices such as Ops Lalang;
  2. Restoring local government elections, Lim Lian Geok’s citizenship, grants for TAR UC and recognition of the UEC.
  3. Declassifying the documents related to these episodes;
  4. Legislating a Freedom of Information Act;
  5. Ratifying international conventions to safeguard justice and good governance;
  6. Forming Truth & Reconciliation Commissions for the tragic incidents in our recent history.

Text of the keynote address by Kua Kia Soong, Suaram adviser, at the Human Rights Week at the KL & Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall on Dec 1, 2019.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.