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.

"Sometimes it is said that man cannot be trusted with the government of himself. Can he, then, be trusted with the government of others? Or have we found angels in the form of kings to govern him".
President Jefferson concluded his address exactly 200 years ago this way:-
"…what more is necessary to make us a happy and a prosperous people? Still one thing more, fellow citizens – a wise and frugal government, which shall restrain men from injuring one another, shall leave them otherwise free to regulate their own pursuits of industry and improvement, and shall not take from the mouth of labour the bread it has earned."

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:-

  • freedom of speech and expression;
  • freedom of worship;
  • freedom from want;
  • freedom from fear.

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 :

  • right to life, liberty and security of person
  • equality before the law without discrimination
  • freedom of movement
  • freedom of thought, conscience and religion
  • freedom of opinion, speech and expression
  • freedom of peaceful assembly.

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:

  • the right to form UMNO, MCA, MIC and other political parties;
  • organizing nationwide assemblies to oppose Malayan Union.
  • the holding of public rallies prior to the first Federal elections held in July 1955 for a new Federal Legislative Council. Alliance captured 51 out of 52 seats, and Tunku Abdul Rahman, became Chief Minister in 1955.
  • the holding in January 1956 of independence talks in London
  • the appointment in March 1956 of an independent Commonwealth Constitutional Commission chaired by Lord Reid.
  • the holding in 1956 by the Reid Commission of 118 meetings all over Malaya.

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.

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: Constitutionalism
Part 3: The Executive and the Legislature
Part 4: The Judiciary