by Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz. First published in The Malay Mail 26 September 2014

Raja Aziz Addruse was best known for being elected thrice to the Presidency of the Bar Council, founding the country’s first human rights NGO, and dealing with profound constitutional issues. To me, he was also a family friend: I knew him only as Uncle Aziz and only later realised his role in fighting for our democracy.

As Malaysia’s foremost constitutional lawyer, Raja Aziz rejected the notion of parliamentary supremacy, arguing that “the fundamental principle which applies under a written constitution is that it is the Constitution itself, and not Parliament, which is supreme”, lamenting the 1988 constitutional amendments that subverted this. Today, the basic structure of our Constitution is under threat from several angles, and there are those who deliberately reinterpret basic premises of our Constitution, citing key articles out of context as justification.

Raja Aziz also wrote on issues such as the independence of backbenchers, freedom of speech, the 1993 constitutional amendments that removed the Rulers’ legal immunity, the mandatory nature of the death penalty, the use of police firearms, apostasy, single-spouse conversion of children, detention without trial and of course the Sedition Act.

His ominous words reflect a general state of cynicism towards politics and government in Malaysia today. Amongst the chattering classes there is no shortage of cynicism to describe the health of our democracy. Institutions are seen to have been compromised by personal or party interests, to the extent that it becomes difficult even for ethical individuals to contribute: several respected NGO and corporate figures have lost credibility simply by becoming cabinet ministers. The prevalent view is that individuals will be corrupted by the system, instead of the system being cleansed by individuals.

This situation has been aided by an intentionally deficient teaching of history which omits the presence of concepts such as rule of law, separation of powers and limits to authority in ancient Malay polities. Even post-Merdeka history is distorted, as the political successors of Dato’ Onn Ja’afar, Tunku Abdul Rahman and Tun Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman are speciously presented as their ideological successors too. Their attitudes towards authoritarian legislation in the context of a communist insurgency are forgotten, so too their ability to socialise with political opponents. But today, simply supporting a different party leads to accusations of treason.

In such an atmosphere, what hope is there for rule of law and morality? How do we break the cycle of institutional destruction? We cannot rely on political forces alone, as we have seen by recent political shenanigans on both sides.

Rather, we need to cajole political forces into a consensus, to re-forge a shared understanding of the Constitution, the rule of law, and the separation of powers. There were aspects of this during Tun Abdullah Badawi’s administration: democratic space opened up that enabled the strengthening of civil society; his acceptance of the 2008 general election results while others bayed for blood proved that peaceful transitions were possible; the Royal Commission of Inquiry into police reform produced a valuable proposal even though it wasn’t fully implemented; and his attempt to reform the judiciary, accompanied by a statement of regret about the 1988 constitutional crisis, was a step in the right direction in recalibrating the relationship between judiciary, executive, and public.

So there are things that morally courageous can do to realise Tunku Abdul Rahman’s vision of “a sovereign democratic and independent State founded upon the principles of liberty and justice” – but where moral courage is absent, it is up to civil society to show that the pillars of the Rukunegara can be upheld without the insincere hectoring of the state.

Today, Raja Aziz’s point about the elasticity of the definition of ‘seditious tendency’ in the Sedition Act is prescient. But there is a way out, if the National Harmony Bill can assuage those who are outraged by the recent spate of arrests as well as those who fear that racial and religious slurs will be used to incite violence.

Raja Aziz was a national hero, as attested by the multitude of accounts that remember him, such as: “The rule of law and the independence of the judiciary were to him not mere clichés or fancy words to be uttered at the appropriate time and to be forgotten when it becomes inconvenient. Raja Aziz believed in these values.”

Perhaps we can take comfort in the fact that, despite the 1988 constitutional amendments, there remains a contestation between the supremacy of Parliament and that of the Constitution. The battle that Raja Aziz fought throughout his career can still be won, but only if the Malaysian judiciary successfully asserts its independence and ultimately wins the respect of the people.

This is a summary of a speech given by the author at the 3rd Raja Aziz Addruse Memorial Lecture. Full text is available at ideas.org.my. Click here to download the full text

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