Abu Talib should spell out his vision of  human rights and whether Suhakam should be a catalyst for fundamental  democratic change in Malaysia or an apologist for government abuses

Media Statement 
by Lim Kit Siang

(Petaling Jaya,  Saturday)The first official statement by the  new Suhakam Chairman, Tan Sri Abu Talib Othman after chairing his first Suhakam meeting yesterday that “it takes more than Suhakam to promote human rights as everyone, including the authorities, has a role to play”  sounds defeatist and is most disturbing, raising the question whether he is preparing the ground to defend a weak and compliant Suhakam instead of paving the way for a dynamic and robust Suhakam which can effectively “protect and promote” human rights. 

An independent judiciary, a representative legislature, a responsible and independent media and a vocal civil society are among the critical factors necessary for the protection and promotion of human rights in any country, and this is why Suhakam must also focus on these important questions – but the central challenge of Suhakam is whether its new Chairman and Commissioners have the will and commitment turn Suhakam into a dynamic and  effective human rights institution. 

On Wednesday, when taking over the duties from his predecessor, Tan Sri Musa Hitam, Abu Talib sought to  dispel fears that he works under the directive of the Government and Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Dr. Mahathir Mohamad by declaring: “One thing I must state very clearly is that I am under nobody’s directive”.  (New Straits Times 25.4.02) 

Suhakam would not be facing a crisis of confidence two years after its establishment if Abu Talib’s declaration that he had retired from the Government and that he is  “as independent as all of you” could be  accepted at its face value  without demur by all Malaysians and in particular, the NGO human rights community.  

A dark cloud, however, hangs over the credibility and legitimacy of Suhakam precisely because of the appointment of Abu Talib as Suhakam chairman, not only in violation of the Paris Principles without consultation with the NGO human rights community, but also because of his role as Mahathir’s first Attorney-General  in 12 out of his 13 years as the top legal officer of the government. 

During this period, Abu Talib played a key role in the government trampling on human rights  whether in prosecutions, repressive legislations like the amendment to the Official Secrets Act to provide for a mandatory one-year jail sentence for any conviction however petty the offence or assaults on the rule of law and an independent judiciary in the dismissal of Lord President Tun Salleh Abas and two Supreme Court judges. 

One worry about the latest batch of the new appointments of Suhakam commissioners, four former civil servants and one serving one, is whether these Commissioners have developed such an ingrained mentality of subservience to the government-of-the-day that there is no need for any specific directive for them to continue to  do the government’s bidding. 

This is particularly pertinent  as Suhakam seems to be backsliding from its commitments to uphold human rights, with the first Suhakam being less  outspoken in its second year as compared to its first year, as a result of government pressures - such as the strictures by the Prime Minister that Suhakam was not acting in the interest of the nation, being influenced by Western thinking and not thinking as Malaysians and other onslaughts by the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department, Datuk Dr. Rais Yatim! 

Abu Talib has said that  Suhakam under his leadership will remain an advisory body to the government on human rights. 

This is a serious misreading and misinterpretation of the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia Act 1999, where Suhakam is vested with powers and functions “for the protection and promotion of human rights in Malaysia”   and not just to be an adviser to the Government on human rights or to be in any manner beholden to the government. 

In the discharge of its statutory duty  to “protect and promote” human rights, Suhakam may find itself at variance and even in conflict with the government if it is be true to its parliamentary mandate.   

In such circumstances, is Abu Talib committed  to lead Suhakam to break ranks with the Government on critical human rights issues? 

This is why it is important that Abu Talib should spell out his vision of  human rights and whether Suhakam should be a catalyst for fundamental  democratic change in Malaysia or an apologist for government abuses.


*Lim Kit Siang - DAP National Chairman