Peaceful Assemblies – A Constitutionally-Enshrined Right of Malaysian Citizens

In an interview with New Sunday Times series “VOICES 08”, Raja Nazrin said:

“Freedom of expression through peaceful demonstrations is a right people can reasonably expect to enjoy in a democratic society. This right is enshrined in our Constitution.

“So people are acting within their constitutional rights in wanting to voice their grievances by holding peaceful demonstrations.

“The right to live in peace and harmony in a safe environment is also a right people can reasonably expect to enjoy in any well-run society. The government is responsible for public order.

“The right to demonstrate must always be balanced by the need to maintain public order.”

All Malaysians can accept Raja Nazrin’s formulation of the relationship between public order and the people’s constitutional right to peaceful demonstration as part of the fundamental liberties of Malaysians to freedom of expression. They also agree with Raja Nazrin that striking the balance between public freedom and public order is never an easy thing to do and that it is a judgment the authorities have to make on the available information.

The current controversy over peaceful demonstrations lies in the failure of the authorities concerned to observe the important qualification highlighted by Raja Nazrin when he stressed that “the desire to maintain public order should not be used as an excuse for never allowing peaceful assemblies” – as there is now a blanket ban by the police on all peaceful demonstrations in the country for people to express their grievances!

Let 2007, the year celebrating the 50th Merdeka anniversary of independence and freedom for Malaysians, end with a “win-win” scenario with the Prime Minister, Cabinet and the Inspector-General of Police drawing up guidelines for Malaysians to exercise their constitutionally-sanctioned right to hold peaceful demonstrations to voice their grievances while maintaining public order.

Malaysia, which claims to want to join the ranks of the first-world developed nations, has a lot to learn from advanced countries in order to shake off our “third-world mentality” and replace it with a “first-world mindset”.

In London, Paris, Berlin or Washington, peaceful demonstrations are a common occurrence involving thousands, tens of thousands and sometimes hundreds of thousands of people, where the police help to maintain law and order, facilitate crowd control and smoothen traffic flow – unlike in Malaysia where the police will create a gridlock paralyzing traffic and locking down the federal capital if there is a whiff of a peaceful demonstration, however small!

It is time that the government and police listen to sane and rational voices like those of Raja Nazrin and former Deputy Prime Minister, Tun Musa Hitam, who in a New Sunday Times interview a fortnight ago made a powerful case for peaceful assemblies in Malaysia.

Asked whether Malaysia is ready for peaceful assemblies, Musa who was formerly Home Minister and was the first Suhakam Chairman, replied without hesitation:

“Yes! Come on, we have been independent for 50 years.”

Musa was clearly in full agreement with Raja Nazrin as the elder ASEAN statesman said:

The right to peaceful assembly is enshrined in our democratic institution. That right also gives the right to the government to refuse.

“The thing at issue is not that the rights are not there. The rights exist. It is the application of the right and the administration of the right that I am taking issue with.”

This is why it is shocking to see the Education Minister, Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein, leading a nation-wide campaign to drum up support against peaceful demonstrations and even seeking to poison the minds of teachers and students by subverting the fundamental liberties enshrined in the constitution – especially the right to peaceful demonstration for Malaysians to express their grievances. – LKS

During this Christmas and holiday season, it is sad as I pondered how it ever came to this! How did we arrived at this point when the ISA has been used to silence voices of the oppressed, the marginalised and the disempowered in the name of public order based purely on imagined and speculated threat to national security ?

For the record I will continue to walk with fellow Anak Bangsa Malaysia come 2008 be it in Sogo, Central Market, Merdeka Square or the streets of Putrajaya. We will continue to walk peacefully and with dignity. The country needs more than justice now, it needs HOPE.

No government, authority or bigoted, racist politicians will deny me my right to peaceful assembly that has been enshrined in our Constitution and democratic institution.

HAPPY NEW YEAR, MALAYSIA.

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