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The Sun – The all-powerful executive

April 8, 2011 | By Zainon Ahmad and Liew-Ann Phang

DR SHAD SALEEM FARUQI is professor of law and legal advisor at Universiti Teknologi Mara, Shah Alam, and has been associated with the faculties of law at the International Islamic University Malaysia and Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia. He graduated from Wesleyan University, USA, at the age of 19 and has been studying and teaching law for over three decades. He has written on the Malaysian constitution and on Islam, democracy and good governance. He has been involved in several international and national projects, been consulted by Fiji, East Timor and Iraq on their constitutional documents and had helped draft the constitution of the Republic of the Maldives. He told ZAINON AHMAD and LLEW-ANN PHANG that the trend of executive dominance of the legislature and of the judiciary is pronounced everywhere in the world.

Q: Prof. Do you think we are being old fashioned if we were to ask you whether this so-called separation of powers in the government between the executive, legislative and judiciary still exist?
A: It much depends on whether you look at things structurally or you look at things functionally. If you look at things structurally, then we do have an executive branch, a judicial branch and a legislative branch but functionally of course, the executive has begun to dominate all three organs. And the executive is now basically the heart of the government process. It was not meant to be that way. There was meant to be a check and balance between the three. They are supposed to be the pillars of government but standing apart. All of them supporting the super-structure called government but standing apart. That separation seems to have been overtaken by political events.

However, let me mention this, that we were never really meant to be entirely separated like in the USA. Our system calls more for check and balance rather than separation because at the level of the executive and the legislature, there was always an overlap because the PM and members of his cabinet sit in parliament and, therefore, are part of it, are answerable and accountable unlike in the USA where the president and his cabinet are totally separate from the legislature. So, to sum it up then, in Malaysia, structurally, there is still some separation, especially at the level of the judiciary. But functionally, I have to say, the executive has begun to tower over everyone else. And part of the reason, I think, is the people have given to the government – consistently – a two-third majority.

So Parliament dominates the legislative sphere. In the area of the judiciary, more and more tribunals are being created to decide on cases — where the judicial function of deciding cases is handed over to specialised agencies or tribunals.

So there is truth to what Datuk Seri Rais Yatim said in his book Freedom Under Executive Power in Malaysia in which he argues that over the years, the executive has become much more powerful than it was meant to be?
I think Datuk Seri Rais Yatim certainly hit the nail on the head. But the alarm he is sounding about had been sounded a long time ago. As early as 1932 when Lord Hewart, one of the English law lord, wrote a book called The New Despotism.

In which he talked about the growing power of the executive?
Yes. The trend is that the executive is beginning to control parliament and is getting more and more involved in decision-making, even in the judicial sphere through tribunals. So the executive is now dominating all three organs of the state.

You see, we tend to think of disputes as belonging to the judicial branch. Well, that’s the general impression. But not all are settled by the courts anymore. For instance income tax disputes, labour disputes, students being expelled, licences withdrawn, houses to be demolished, planning permissions — these are all involving rights, duties — and they’re decided by the executive through tribunals exercising what could be called quasi judicial functions. Then there are advisory boards on preventive detention. Courts do not even examine the matter as it is done purely by executive-appointed tribunals.

So the executive does make hundreds and thousands of quasi judicial or judicial decisions where the courts have absolutely no say. And Lord Hewart was not alone in sounding the alarm. Someone wrote a book Bureaucracy Triumphant. There was also a book called The Passing of Parliament — that parliament has died. So actually, in the (19)30s, (19)40s, in England, this alarm was being sounded. The trend of executive dominance of legislature and of the judiciary is pronounced everywhere in the world.

That means this is not something unique to Malaysia, that it is also happening elsewhere?
Yes. The simple reason for this is that state functions have grown and with state functions growing, state powers have grown. The traditional institutions, mechanism, principles and procedures for checking these powers have failed.

So parliament, which is supposed to question the executive on its policies, on its programmes, has failed too. Is that what you are saying?
Yes. MPs are supposed to question the executive branch or the front benchers. But how much can MPs ask in the one-hour question time? At the most 10-12 questions are asked.

Or six or seven only.
That’s about it. And parliament does not sit every day. So it’s more like a part-time institution. Whereas the government works 24 hours a day and its tentacles spread everywhere. How can a part-time institution control an over-time institution? The executive is an over-time institution. There are about 800,000 public servants, if not more, and they do many things. It is difficult for parliament. Thus, the amount of discretionary power that developed over the last one century is just unbelievable.

It’s the same in England?

It’s the same in England. But in England there are some differences. One difference is this— that parliament does exercise check and balance over the executive in many areas. Reason for this is that the opposition is very strong. The Opposition has nearly 50% or 45% of the seats. And then there the tradition of the free press is very strong. They have very strong NGOs. We have some of that but nevertheless there are lots of qualitative differences. But everywhere in the world executive is beginning to dominate. A recent British parliamentary report said that “parliament legitimates, it does not legislate.”

So basically, it’s a rubber stamp?
Not in so many words but it is. It signs, it approves. It puts the chop. It’s a fact that the policy behind the law is contributed by the ministers or the departments. The timing of the Bill is decided by the government. The minister then pilots the Bill through. The date the bill is introduced is decided and even the date the Bill is likely to be passed.

Let’s go back to what you said just now — “parliament legitimates, it does not legislate”. This means that our MPs should no longer be referred to as lawmakers as they no longer make law.
True, true … Actually no doubt about it, in the lawmaking sphere, the executive has become more important than parliament for a number of reasons. One is that, as I mentioned earlier, the policy behind the law is executive policy. The timing for the law is determined by the executive. The executive then uses its brute majority to push the bill through.

Without any change?
Ah, I did some research on this. Something like 80% of the Bills over a period of five years from 1991 – 1995 were passed without a comma or a fullstop being amended. About 15% of the Bills were withdrawn by the government. Because of MPs’ input, or inputs by the NGOs, or international pressure, the government decided to withdraw and relook at the Bill. Only 5% of the Bills did Parliament make any impact in terms of amendments, and these amendments are incorporated by the government. So, it is quite clear that the legislative process is basically an executive process, not a parliamentary process. So you can actually say that the centre of gravity of the entire legislative process has shifted from Parliament to Putrajaya.

So there is no point talking about a world-class parliament when there is already a trend of executive dominance. And the dominance all the more real with the government controlling 90% of the seats.
Let me clarify this. Much depends on what the functions of Parliament are. In traditional consitutional theory, parliament performs four separate functions. Law making – in this area, one has to admit parliament legitimates, it does not legislate. Executive is more important than parliament in the law-making sphere. Secondly, the control of national finance. Here, the control of parliament is even weaker than the legislative sphere. Financial policy is basically executive policy. Parliament merely votes the budget. But large parts of the budget are voted without any debate whatsoever because time runs out.

You spend about 20 days or so discussing the budget. How much can you discuss? As you newspaper people have observed, the budget debate is used to hit the government on the head about everything else other than the budget. From potholes to education policy to illegal immigrants. So, the realities of the budget are that the executive determines the votes – how much money will be spent on education, on defence, how much will be allocated to UiTM and to other universities. I think the executive determines and the MPs basically, legitimate (it).

Well, it need not be that way. But it is that way because of our system?
Exactly. In our system, if the budget fails, the government will have to fall because the budget vote is an issue of confidence. MPs may criticise, they may have their say but the government will have its way. MPs may have their say but the government must have its way because if the budget is defeated, that will amount to a vote of no-confidence in our system of parliamentary democracy. Unlike in the USA where the president’s budget is often rejected and the president stays as the president. But here, that’s impossible.

So in the legislative sphere, government has become more important in the sphere of control of national economy. Parliament basically legitimates. It looks into broad policies but that’s about it.

The third function?
You call that the deliberative function. MPs deliberate on policy, they ask questions, they size up the government, they require further information. I think on that, question time does serve its purpose. It highlights problems of national policy, it highlights problems of the constituents. I know question time doesn’t get a full and fair coverage in the papers. Actually a great deal of very critical stuff is uttered on the floor of Parliament during question time. But of course, question time is not entirely effective as I have said earlier.

And then there is a fourth function —constituency function. MPs are supposed to be the voice of the people, to highlight the problems of the people in Parliament and to give feedback to the government. I think on that, the Malaysian MP does a good job. He goes back to his constituency, he keeps his ears close to the ground, his fingers on the pulse beats of the nation. Somebody has done comparative studies, of Malaysia and Japan and Korea, have found that the Malaysian MP is closer to his constituents then MPs in Korea and Japan. Of course, it’s a matter of interpretation.

Why do you say it’s a matter of interpretation?
Now, this author who wrote this report says this is because of under-development of certain aspects in Malaysia. He feels that the Malaysian MP is able to provide a voice to his constituents better in Malaysia then in other countries because in other countries, citizens have better recourse to the courts, better recourse to the media and better recourse to other remedies. He said because these other remedies are under-developed here, therefore the MP has become the predominant voice in raising the grievances of the citizens.

But I would like to say the Malaysian MPs are doing a good job in providing redress to his constituents. Every MP plays a one-man public complaints bureau role and I think for that, we have to pat them on the back.

Now despite the growing dominance of the executive in the legislative sphere, surely we can still aspire for a more active parliament. Surely there must be something we can do to make our parliament world class. Whatever that means these days.
Certainly. A great deal can be done to improve things. For example, in the legislative sphere, I think we need to make use of the Select Committee procedures. They are in the book. As far as I know, since Merdeka, I am told, only about six times have we appointed this committee. I understand one is sitting right now to look into the criminal law.

This committee can provide very useful feedback to the government on what specialists in the area say. This committee can meet upstairs and invite citizens groups, scholars, and any affected party to give feedback on the Bill.

But as I said, only about six times since Merdeka, we have this. I would like to say something about the unusual and undesirable practice that Bills are embargoed till the day they are presented in Parliament. Bills should be made known to the public even before that. So we can still have a better parliament. So I’m making a number of suggestions.

Number one is we should resort to the Select Committee Procedure more often. Bills should not be embargoed as they should be made available to the public for further comment. Thirdly, there is a procedure for private members Bills. We should give monetary support to MPs to draft private members Bills. In the UK the procedure is MPs who wish to introduce private members Bills apply, to take part in a ballot. The top 10 in the ballot will receive financial assistance because drafting a Bill requires expertise, money, time so they will receive monetary support.

Fourthly, I think, all MPs must have legislative assistants or support staff. Support staff consisting of researchers on economic matters and even in legislative matters. In countries like the Philippines, which is economically much worse off than us – not as well off as us – each congressman has four legislative assistants. We don’t give to our MPs any assistant. I think each MP must have legislative assistants to do their research for them, to draft their speeches for the debate on the Budget — the impact of the Budget on, let us say, fishermen, on rubber tappers, on the poor.

I also think we should have an Institute of Parliamentary Affairs. If we can have ILKAP for the judiciary, INTAN for the administration, why can’t we have an Institute of Parliamentary Affairs to train our MPs in improving their institutional efforts.

This is done in other countries?
Yes, in many other countries. I have travelled to the Philippines often, I am involved in some groups there. There are special groups to train MPs to perform their Parliamentary function. Not only to train MP in Parliamentary procedures but also to sensitise MPs to the problems of the poor, the marginalised. Sensitise them, for example, on gender issues and assist them with information, with background research on what they can raise in Parliament. So I think we need to assist our MPs. We are not being fair to our Parliament and to our MPs.

Now let’s go on to our constitution. It has been amended so many times that many people are of the view that it is no longer our original “document of destiny” or “our national charter” or that the spirit of the original document has been diluted. What do you think?
Well, there is no doubt about it. The constitution has been amended many times. Up to this year, I think there have been about 42 amendments. In 48 years. However, each amendment contains a number of clauses and if you were to count the number of clauses that have been amended and re-amended and re-amended, up to 2001, I have counted about 644 amendments.

In other countries, like the USA for instance, you amend Article 3, that’s one amendment. Article 4, that’s another amendment — amendment number two. And if Article 5 is amended, then it is amendment number three. Here, what we do is, in one Constitutional Amendment Bill, sometimes we amend 40 Articles in one go and we count that as one amendment. Actually, it should be possibly, 40 amendments. So that’s what I was saying. There have been about 42 Amendment Bills passed since Merdeka but each amendment bill often contains scores of amendments.

If you were to count each clause as a separate amendment, we have about 650. Six-hundred and forty-four up to 2001. If you count up to 2005, it will be about 650, or so, times the provision of the Constitution that have been re-written or amended from time to time.

Other countries, are their amendments also this numerous?
Well, there is no uniform pattern. If you look at the American Constitution, it’s been amended only about 30 times in 230 years. And they jokingly say America is the frozen continent when it comes to amendments because things just don’t thaw that easily.

What about India?
India is like Malaysia. Partly rigid, partly flexible. In India too, many amendments have been passed but in India what has happened is that the courts have risen to the ocassion and have told Parliament that “you cannot amend the basic structure.” In Malaysia, that argument has been raised and rejected by our courts. Our courts have said as long as the government follows the proper procedures, it can amend anything.

Regardless of whether the spirit of the Constitution still remains or not?

Yes. The danger of rejecting the basic structure is this. I’m just giving a hypothetical example. Let us say tomorrow, the government of the day says let us amend the Constitution to extend the life of Parliament from five years to 25 years. As long as the two-third majority is obtained, that amendment can be passed but that amendment would totally destroy the democratic basis of the Constitution because that means for 25 years, there will be no elections.

Remember in Sri Lanka, one day they passed the law, they said “okay, no elections this time”. And the government just continued for another five years. Britain too had extended the life of parliament several times.

What happens if an amendment extends the life of parliament to 20 years or 25 years?
Well, it’s a case of using the Constitution to destroy the Constitution. In which case, the Constitution will contain the seeds of its own destruction. The basic structure argument is highly contentious because it raises the question of who should decide what is basic? The government of the day or the judges? Anyway, what is basic structure? So suppose you take away the immunities of the rulers. Was that part of the basic structure? The late Tun Suffian Hashim in the Faridah Begum case said “yes, it is”. So, it’s a controversial doctrine.

Anyway, amendments of the Constitution always pose a political dilemma. The dilemma is this. The Constitution has to be open to change because life is always larger than the law and the law has to keep moving. Otherwise, it will just fall behind. As someone nicely said: “The Constitution that will not bend will have to break”.

What is your comment on Article 10 of our national charter which provides for freedom of speech, assembly and association. Did the original drafters of the constitution really wanted us to have all those freedoms?
Well, my impression is Article 10 does not safeguard free speech very well. In the chapter on fundamental rights, some fundamental rights are very well protected or better protected. For example property, for example religion. But two or three fundamental rights were always left at the mercy of Parliament. Liberty was one of them and fundamental right to speech was another.

Article 10 Clause 1(a) from day one said all citizens are entitled to freedom of speech and expression. Article 10 Clause 2 says Parliament, may by law, impose on the above right, restrictions on eight grounds – public order, national security, incitement and offence, friendly relations with other states, contempt of court, contempt of Parliament, defamation, morality.

And Parliament has used public order, national security grounds to enact laws like the Police Act whereby permits are needed to march, to assemble; Internal Security Act, Official Secrets Act. So actually from day one, freedom of speech and expression was not one of the better protected rights.

And these rights have become more proscribed today?
Yes, I would agree with you since 1971, the restrictions have been further enhanced because of the 1971 Constitutional Amendment. We call it the Sensitive Matters Amendment. Now sensitive matters cannot be questioned, even in Parliament. So the law of sedition applies fully in Parliament. So freedom of speech and expression was never really as well protected even on Aug 31, 1957.

But I acknowledge, it has been subjected to further restraints. However, talking of personal freedoms and amendibility of the Constitution, it is quite clear fundamental rights have been subjected to more and more restraints over the years. Executive power has been enhanced more and more, over the years.

Are there features of the constitution that have remained intact?
Many other features of the Constitution have remained largely intact… federal-state relations have generally remained the way they were at the time of (19)57 and (19)63, when Sabah and Sarawak came in. We have a federal-state division of power.

For example Islam. Since 1977, the government has strived very hard to have a uniform Muslim family law. It has not been easy because states want to maintain their power. I think the multi-racial, the multi-cultural, the multi-religious aspects of our Constitution have remained largely intact. I think when the Constitution was built, there was an overwhelming spirit of accommodation, tolerance, give and take. I think that has largely remained intact. It is also quite clear, human rights have contracted while state power has been enhanced, especially in the area of emergency powers of the state.

Last time, subversion laws had a time limit. The time limit was restricted. Last time emergency powers could be questioned in the courts. Now the Constitution clearly says the Yang di-Pertuan Agong’s exercise of emergency powers cannot be reviewed, questioned in any court, on any ground whatsoever.

Isn’t there anything in the constitution that can prevent frequent amendments?
There are other procedures. But the two-third majority rule has obviously not worked well up to now. But if at some future time, the government loses its two-third majority, amendments will become difficult. We have to remember in politics, nothing is permanent.

Do you think enough has been done to promote legal literacy in our “document of destiny” that is our Constitution?
Of course not. Not enough has been done. The Constitution is not taught in our primary or secondary school. It’s not taught in universities except in law schools. And the law school began teaching the Constitution only in 1972. From 1957 – 1972, the Constitution was not taught anywhere. Even now, the Constitution is taught as one subject. We do not teach, for example, a special course on human rights. Or let us say, federalism.

In many countries, federalism is a separate paper. The Constitution is not really taught for our civil service examinations. Our local authority officials, our university officials, I think they are not really familiar with the fundamentals of our Constitution. I have to say this that the Constitution is basically marginalised. It’s not the force it ought to be. It is not given the central place in our policy making, in our law-making that it ought to be given.

You mean to say that it should be a much referred to document? That we should refer to it for guidance like the way we refer to our holy books?
In the secular area, the Constitution is the beginning point of what is allowed and what is not allowed. Often, nobody pays any heed to the Constitutional provisions. Legislation is replete with clauses which say the minister shall, in his absolute discretion, be allowed to do such and such. With all due respect, absolute discretions are unconstitutional because they violate the spirit of Article 8 – equality before the law. If the minister has absolute discretion, then he can treat like as not alike and that would be a violation of equality before the law.

Our laws are replete with situations where, for example, the attorney-general has a plethora of laws – a multiplicity of laws – and he can pick and choose which law to apply. I think multiplicity of laws is alright, provided there is some clear-cut policy which guides the AG in exercising his discretion as to which law to apply in which particular situation. Let me give you an example. For arms – there are three separate laws. Arms Act – seven years penalty. Firearms increased penalty, at 14 years penalty. ISA death penalty.

Now, the Attorney-General has absolute discretion to choose which law to apply in which case. I think this violates the spirit of Article 8. I think the laws should provide a guideline to the Peguam Negara as to which circumstances will attract the Arms Act or the Firearms Act or the ISA and the courts must enforce these guidelines. So I think, executive actions are taken in blissful disregard of the Constitution. Laws are passed in blissful disregard of the Constitution.

Another example. Say I have to supply copies of my book to the National Library. I am happy to do so, but Article 13 Clause 2 says nobody’s property can be taken away without adequate compensation. With all due respect, the National Library must give me the price of my book. Now the motive is noble, we must be build a repository of national information. Yes, but there is a right to property for a good purpose or for a not-so-good purpose. Nobody’s private property can be taken away without adequate compensation. I think the law requiring people to give his book is in blissful disregard of the right to property. I have nothing against the law but what I am saying is executive actions, legislative actions are taken without regard to the Constitution.

In Shah Alam, for example, for the last 15 years, Christian groups were asking for a church to be built. Those who denied them this right or delayed this right, I think, know very little about the Perlembagaan Persekutuan and they know very little about Islam and Islam’s spirit of tolerance. I think the delay was contrary to the spirit of freedom of religion in Article 11. I think the delay was against the spirit of tolerance in Islam.

What is your take on the criticism of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by some Asian and African leaders?
Actually, I have a lot of admiration for this doctrine. I think it has a great many truths which are worthy of great respect, transcendental truths, universal truths. But on the other hand, from the Third World perspective, some things can clearly be pointed out.

The Universal Declaration tends to reflect a world view, a cultural view which will be more suitable for a Western society then for an Eastern or Southern society. To give you two or three points on this, I think, there is excessive individualism in this document. It tends to ignore the fact that human beings are social beings. That they belong or they seek to belong to groups, that along with the individual entity, they have collective entities, cultural rights.

We have rights — religious rights, we have linguistic rights. So this calls for recognition of our collective identity. Of our identity as part of the group. Not only in Asia actually … In Africa, tribal loyalties are very, very important. The Universal Declaration tends to emphasise individual rights. It tends to treat the individual as an island unto itself. Actually, all of us sit in the centre of a large number of circles of loyalty. And there is the loyalty to our family, to our community, to our tribe, to our nation, to our religion and I think, from hour to hour, these loyalties acquire a new priority (laughs).

So I think we have to accept that human beings are not just lone individuals – lone rangers. They are part of group(s). Another very grey drawback in this doctrine is it tends to emphasise political and civil rights over socio-economic rights, but I have to say that this over-emphasis on civil and political rights was corrected by the International Covenant on Economic and Social and Cultural Rights.

I think now international law does recognise that food is as important as freedom. That bread is as important as the ballot box. This International Covenant on Economic, and Social and Cultural Rights 1966 does acknowledge that besides freedom of speech, right to association assembly we also need to give to people some socio-economic rights.

Former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, in one of his speeches, excoriated the Europeans for their hypocrisy when it comes to human rights. He referred to their demonic ways in dealing with slaves and prisoners and were responsible for the massacre of innocent villagers in countries they colonized?
Actually, I am fully and enthusiastically in support of the point of view promoted by Tun Dr Mahathir. I commend him for his courage in pointing out that the human rights record of the West is indeed demonic, shameful and we need to expose it. However, let me qualify my statement by giving two ideas. Number one – double standards are not a monopoly of the West. I think most of us in Asia, Africa also suffer from double standards. We criticise and condemn some human rights violations. We turn a blind eye towards others.

For example, in many of our neighbours, in our own backyard, sometimes, human rights violations take place but in the interest of Asian solidarity, we tend not to criticise. So double standards are not a monopoly of the West. Secondly, I have to mention that in the past Europe and America had a horrendous record of human rights. Whether from slavery to colonialism, to genocide, to the way they have used atomic weapons on innocent civilians in Hiroshima, Nagasaki, racism, racial profiling, America has bombed 28 nations since World War II. They sell weapons of mass destruction to Asian and African countries that can hardly afford them, they have predatory economic policies that rob us of our basic rights, their economic institutions – Bretton Woods Institution, World Bank, IMF (International Monetary Fund) are basically there to safeguard their interest at our expense. They export their toxic waste to us. Their human rights record is horrendous. Anybody who knows history will have to admit that the worst violations of human rights in the last few centuries were in Europe and America.

But they get away with it?
Now, there are many reasons why America and Europe get away with these things. One is this – they are the dominant civilisation. Of course, civilisations rise and fall but 19th century belonged to Britian, 20th century belonged to the USA and now this century, also I think – at the moment America is the sole-super-power. They have captured our hearts, our minds, the appeal of their hedonistic culture. The glitter of the media personalities, their music, their fastfoods, their clothing. They have mesmerised us. There is no doubt about it, our basic assumptions of right and wrong, good and bad, wholesome, not so wholesome is guided by them.

Is it because they control the world media?
Absolutely. Ah, yes they control the media. And they control the education too. They control virtually every aspect of our existence – our concept of beauty is basically determined by them. In Malaysia, whitening creams are being sold. This is racism. What is wrong with our skin? What’s wrong with it? It’s racism for someone to tell that I must lighten my skin. Why don’t you sell skin-darkening cream to the Americans. I mean, why is it that in language, evil and bad things are dark and good things are light and bright? There are a lot of prejudices, so I think the glitter of their civilisation has mesmerised us.

Our young people have basically adopted the culture, the thinking. I have to be very frank with you. If I go to Hilton Hotel, I’ll be reluctant to eat with my hands the way I do at home because good manners, culture, civilisation is basically as the West defines it. Our concept of beauty has been hijacked. Our girls are trying very desperately to look like Barbie Dolls but how can an Arab girl or a Fiji girl or an Indian or a Pakistani girl look like Barbie Doll?

About the UN. A major effort was launched recently to reform it at the initiative of secretary-general Kofi Annan. But it has failed. To many people there was never any doubt at all that it was going to fail. What do you think?
Actually I personally attended a conference in Iran on UN reform where secretary-general Kofi Annan sent a very-high-powered representative and at that UN conference in Tehran, it was generally accepted that reform of the structure of the UN, especially of the Security Council, was not going to succeed because any reform will be vetoed by the permanent members.

You see, the Security Council, in my view, is one of the most despicable, racist, international agencies in the world today. Out of five veto-wielding members, four belong to Europe or North America. They are caucasians, they are Christians. The only one veto-wielding member from Asia is China. The entire Hindu civilisation, the entire Islamic civilisation, the whole of Africa, the whole of Latin America is not represented amongst the five veto-wielding members.

So in your view, the United Nations always was, and still is basically, an institution to represent the interest of the victors of World War II. They have rewarded themselves with certain privileges which they are not going to give up.
Yes. And in addition to that, it is basically an institution to reflect the interest of the former colonial powers, of the Christian civilisation of the White civilisation and Latin America, Africa, Asia except China, are actually totally marginalised. So the reform of the Security Council is basically to take away their veto power. Will they be willing give this power up? I mean in all fairness, why should anyone have a veto over an international institution? Why should there be five permanent members? There should be no permanent members.

I think the Security Council is a despicable, undemocratic, racist, religiously-bigoted institution. However, reform in this area was never going to succeed because any proposal would have been vetoed. They were trying to pay lip-service by saying okay, they will have a three-tier membership – five permament members with the veto power, a few more permanent members but without veto powers and then there willl be some non-permanent members. That may succeed but, to me, that would be a fig-leaf to find the original nakedness of an undemocratic, racist, colonial structure.

I have to say very bluntly, the UN in its charter talks about equality of nations. If there is equality, then how come you have a veto and I don’t? How come you’re permanent and I’m not? So, I think the whole idea of permanent members, veto-wielding members is undemocratic. But of course, we have to be realistic. This reform will not succeed because the permanent members will veto.

But there are other areas that could be reformed to make the world body more beneficial to the whole world especially the Third World countries. Many people were very hopeful that in the socio-economic area, in the area of poverty eradication, in the area of UN having a role in making this world less cruel in terms of economic distribution, the UN could have played a role. But what happened?
Now this is the biggest disappointment. The Western world is not prepared actually to tackle vigorously, problems of poverty. I believe, and I am fortified in my belief by a number of Western economists who say, poverty can be eradicated. It can be conquered.

All that is needed is a certain amount of GNP (gross-national-product) allocated to poverty eradication scheme. That’s where the great disappointment comes. The Western world, especially the United States under the present regime, is not committed to poverty eradication, social justice. They are basically committed to predatory policies. Economic predatory policies whereby actually in the name of free trade they are basically out to exploit globalisation today.

The World Trade Organisation and all these other international institutions and international arraignments are basically meant to benefit those who are already powerful. It is not a level playing field. It’s a field whereby those who are strong will grow stronger and those who are weak will actually decline further into the abyss of despair.

One of the fundamental rights enshrined in our constitution is freedom of religion. Which states that every person has the right to profess and practice his religion which I assume that a person also has a right to change his religion and profess a new religion of his choice to stop professing and practising of his present religion. What has happened to that right?
Freedom of religion was one of our better protected rights. It was our pride and joy, really. I don’t think there is any other multi-racial country in Asia or maybe around the world where there is such incredible diversity. Such close-balance between the Malays and the non-Malays, you know in terms of population-wise. The non-Malay groups are extremely large especially take note of Sabah, Sarawak, Penang and yet, we have lived together without civil-war, without racial confligurations, religious riots.

There are a few exceptions, of course, with (19)69 was the most drastic one. We have had an incredible amount of religious, racial, linguistic harmony and I think it was largely because of the vision, the courage and the large-heartedness of the leaders at the time of Merdeka who decided to follow the middle-path and I think there is something about the Malay community itself. The Malay community, up to now, has been very accommodating of diversity, of tolerance.

I have to say this; that lately – and by lately I mean in the last 15-years or so – there are some very negative developments. I think there is a fair amount of religious overzealousness. I think there is some intolerance. There is some extremism that is taking hold. I hate to put it this way but increasingly there is Taliban-isation of Malay and Muslim society taking place. Taliban-isation … I am personally, bewildered, how religion of Islam, so universalistic, with so much emphasis on pluralism, on tolerance, on diversity as a gift of God. How a Malay community so open to accommodation of others, how there is now a predominance of overzealousness.

Issues, for example, of apostasy laws are being passed to send apostates to rehabilitation centres, deviationists are being treated with utmost severity. The moral policing of society is increasing. As I said earlier Taliban-isation, more and more Taliban-isation is taking place. Our religious school teachers are telling our kids, telling our young kids in primary schools and secondary schools, they must not visit each other’s festivals, houses over festivals, they must not send Chinese New Year cards and Deepavali cards and Christmas cards. What is happening?

Do you know for sure that what you say is happening? That Muslim religious teachers telling their Muslim students not to visit their non-Muslim friends in their homes.
My kids are coming back from school and say: “Ustazah kata … Ustaz kata”. And I say: “No, you don’t listen to them. These are all our fellow-human beings. You must visit them and they are also children of God. God allowed this diversity to take place”. I quote to them from the Quran – “If Allah had wanted, he would have made the whole world into one community” but He did not. Yes, you can be sure of that. It is happening.

What can we do to stop it? If as you say extremism is taking hold what can we do to prevent it from spreading?
I think we need to adopt a tough stand. I think leadership – political leadership, political will – is needed in this area. In my view some of what is happening is not in accordance with Islam. Islam, as I understand it. It is not in accordance of the Constitution.

To give an example from Islam, I don’t think Islam mandates sanctions for all transgressions of Islamic morality. I don’t think Islam mandates punishments for people who don’t say their prayers. It is wrong not to say your prayers. Prayers are wajib (compulsory) but I don’t think this is a matter for the state to punish. I think this for Allah to punish.

Increasingly we are passing laws to punish people who don’t say their prayer. At one time, it was only for Friday prayers. Now there are states who are passing laws for other prayers as well. Now, this is what I would call Taliban-isation. Yes, there are state enactments that are being enacted for other prayers as well. They’re punishing people for not fasting. I think a lot of this moral policing, too, I don’t think Islam requires it. Islam too, has a sense of privacy. There is a concept of privacy.

Now, officers are hiding behind bushes, they are hiding under floorboards, peeping through. I don’t think that’s Islamic. I don’t think Islam allows that. I think there is a right to privacy in Islam. I think in Islam there is no compulsion. Islam recognises pluralism, Islam recognises tolerance so I feel a little bit uneasy about this attitude towards apostates, attitude towards deviationists. I think as long as deviationists and apostates are not belligerent to Islam. I think we must leave them alone.

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