Human Rights in 21st Century Malaysia
by Tommy Thomas
The moment decisions affecting the life of one human being were taken for him by another human being, human rights made its appearance. It is hence as old as man. Human rights made its presence felt since time immemorial. It came to play when governors started governing the governed, and when rulers started ruling the ruled. At its core, human rights represent the tension between the state and its citizenry.
The matter of human rights is universal, both in time and in space, in history and in geography, cutting across racial, ethnic, religious, cultural and political divides. Ancient philosophers like Plato, Aristotle and Socrates wrestled with the subject. So did 17th century philosophers like John Locke, David Hume, Montesquie and Voltaire.
The enemy of human rights has always been the state, which is not just limited to government or one of its branches, the executive, but also extends to all its agencies, bureaucracies and civil servants – a modern term being "The Establishment". It is invariably the state, through an agency, instrumentality or person, which infringes the rights of an individual. The distrust of Government because it is a real adversary of human rights is perhaps best articulated by Thomas Jefferson in his first inaugural address after being elected the 3rd President of the United States on 4th March 1801.
The evil that was Adolf Hitler and the outbreak of the 2nd World War ironically gave a tremendous boost to human rights. In 1941, President Roosevelt declared that he looked forward to a world founded upon 4 essential human freedoms:-
They are the bedrock of human rights.
Two landmarks in the history of human rights occurred shortly after the end of the 2nd World War. First, the Nuremberg Trials in 1945 which established for the first time that the doctrine of "superior orders" is not available even during war, and even those in political and military high command are liable for waging wars of aggression and for genocide. Secondly, the coming into effect in 1948 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights which provides "inter alia" that everyone has the :
These developments influenced the conduct of the imperial power in British Malaya between 1945 (when the British returned to reclaim Malaya from the Japanese) and 1957 (when Merdeka was achieved). It is useful to recall that during that 12-year period, although we were colonized and were part of an imperial empire, Malayans enjoyed substantial freedom, including:
It must also be remembered that Emergency was declared on 18th June 1948 because of the Communist insurgency which lasted for 12 years and was only lifted on 31st July 1960. During the Emergency 11,035 persons were killed, 21,916 suffered casualties, and Henry Gurney, the British High Commissioner was assassinated. In fact, when Merdeka was declared on 31st August 1957, Malaya was in Emergency.
Yet civil liberties and the rule of law were never seriously undermined. The fact that the nation was going through a violent insurrection was not used by the imperial power as an excuse to deny or delay our independence. Therefore, it is a myth that our people did not enjoy any human rights prior to Merdeka.