Sunday, August 24, 2008

The mind games we can do without

ON Aug 9, I was not able to attend the monthly meeting of the Bar Council as my mother and mother-in-law were unwell. A forum entitled "Conversion to Islam: Article 121(1A) of the Federal Constitution, Subashini and Shamala Revisited" was held on the same day in the Bar Council's secretariat building.

A day later, my mother-in-law died peacefully at her home in Yong Peng at the age of 89.

For the last year, my mother-in-law was patiently attended to by a local doctor, Dr Mutalib Mohamed. Dr Mutalib had been going to the house a few times a week after she became bedridden to clean and dress her wounds arising from bed sores.

Each time, he had to painstakingly incise the dead cells and dress the sores, some of which were the size of a small crater. He did not charge much even though the job was distasteful. But he did it. Alas, my mother-in-law lapsed into a semi-comatose state three months ago after a stroke, but Dr Mutalib continued to monitor her. He also had to change the Ryle's tube regularly so that she could be fed. There were also a few emergency occasions when his services were willingly rendered.

By going around this predominantly Chinese community to attend to other aged patients like my mother-in-law, the urbane and good-looking Dr Mutalib no doubt earned the respect and admiration of many.

Little did he know that his simple service has gone a long way to project the good side of the religion he professes -- Islam. In fact, it was almost unthinkable for a non-Malay in Yong Peng to visit and consult a Malay doctor a few decades ago. Of course, he and his wife also took the trouble to pay their last respects to his departed patient.

But the Malays are not only polite and forgiving. They are a grateful people, too. I remember in 2004, I represented for free Al-Yatama Bhd which runs orphanages in Johor in a four-year court battle.

When we successfully obtained a court order to compensate Al-Yatama for RM65 million and to repossess their 1,092ha of land after entering into a failed joint venture in 1996 ( "Charity firm recovers land in suit" -- NST, Feb 3, 2004), two septuagenarian directors of its board, Abdul Rahman Abbas and Sulaiman Hassan, were ever so grateful.

They cried with joy and hugged me outside the courtroom. Grabbing my hands, they cried in Malay: "Mr Roger, Allah will bless you!" I was touched by their kind words.

While it cannot be denied that religion occupies a central place in the lives of the Malays, I thought what the protesters did on Aug 9 did not fairly and kindly portray the amiable side of the ordinary Malay folk. I was rather alarmed by what I saw in the videos taken of the incident.

One of their leaders, Zulkifli Nordin, a former one-term Bar Council member himself, allegedly urged the already agitated protesters to storm the building if he and a few others did not re-emerge to inform the rest that they had stopped the forum. Two kerosene-filled bottles were also left outside.

Zulklifi's explanation that he was there to defend his religion was wholly misplaced. Islam was never challenged let alone attacked in this multiracial forum. Some of the speakers and participants who took part in the forum were Muslims, and quite correctly, they took to the floor to speak for Islam in a mature, respectable and civilised manner.

One of them was Professor Mehrun Siraj, wife of former Bar Council chairman Sulaiman Abdullah. Though small in build, she was obviously not a pusillanimous lady when she stood up to the imperious Zulklifi and gang, saying: "Muslims must act based on the Quran and Sunnah. We must behave well. Muslims must not be rude. I am ashamed of your behaviour. Islam does not condone this."

Sadly, by stoking racial sentiments and hurling racist remarks, the raucous protesters had only tarnished the good name of Islam. Zulklifi's actions have also opened the eyes of the people to see how Parti Keadilan Rakyat could govern this country when their members hold divergent views on race and religion.

Zulklifi's other oft-repeated statement that the Quran is more important than the Federal Constitution also runs contrary to the views held even by the many human rights activists within his own party, PKR. This gave rise to the impression, wrongly or correctly, that Zulklifi advocates a government based on syariah.

Of course, the Bar Council will not lodge any police report against them for holding an illegal assembly or for the seditious words that they had uttered. Neither will the Bar Council seek an apology from PKR, Pas or Umno. To do so would be against the stand taken by the Bar all this while on freedom of expression and assembly and the Sedition Act.

In a way, Aug 9 should be celebrated as a day in which democracy flourished in this country if not for the protesters who, when exercising their right to object to the forum, had also sought to prevent others from expressing their similar right to hold it, even though their views differed on the matter.

It is now apposite to stress that the Bar Council is not anti-Islam or any religion at all. Like the cabinet, members of the Bar Council are bound by the principle of collective responsibility.

When the Bar Council gave the green light to its Family Committee to hold the forum, little did we realise that it would be so grossly misinterpreted. After all, this was not the first time the council had organised a forum on this vexed issue.

The council had innocuously thought the composition of the panellists was rather balanced as two of the original speakers were former syariah judge Dr Mohd Naim Mokhtar, and Institut Kefahaman Islam Malaysia (Ikim) Syariah Law Centre director Dr Wan Azhar Wan Ahmad.

In hindsight, we could have titled the forum more appropriately. In this sense, I personally acknowledge that we could have been more sensitive. Perhaps a title like "Conflict of civil and syariah laws after Subashini and Shamala" would have been more apt.

Unfortunately, in these days, we are caught in the mind game that perception is more important than practice and fact.

The fact is that the Malaysian Bar has spoken up for Muslims, too. We are a loud critic of the Iraq war as well as the mistreatment of suspected terrorists in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Further, the only religious event organised by the Bar committees is the buka puasa.

Similarly, the police are caught in this problem with perception. No doubt, their actions on Aug 9 will be compared with the efforts they took to break up the Bersih and Hindraf demonstrations.

But the fact is after the March 8 general election, there appeared to be a more tolerant approach in the way in which the authorities viewed public demonstrations. What the authorities must always bear in mind is that their response to any similar event must be consistent when upholding the rule of law.

Having said that, as we approach yet another Merdeka, I believe we Malaysians can progress further and learn to look at sensitive issues in a civilised and mature manner. It may take time, but the Bar Council, being entrusted to uphold the cause of justice without fear or favour, will continue to promote this practice of civil dialogue.

Published in the New Straits Times, 24 August 2008

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Hundreds turn up to bid farewell to Teo

The Star
by Beh Yuen Hui

Loved by all: Family, relatives and friends bade farewell to Teo at her funeral service on Thursday.
YONG PENG: Throughout her life, Teo Guat Kwee had reached out to help churches, schools and the underprivileged.

And on her death, her children did the same.

They gave away the contributions collected at Teo’s funeral to charity.

A total of RM5,000 was donated to the Yong Peng High School to help poor students, while the remaining RM2,000 was donated to various churches, charity organisations, Chinese schools and associations.

“Everyone is equal and deserves the same love, respect and grace,” was the motto of Teo, 89, who came to Malaya from China with her brother Chang Ming Zoo in 1932.

Teo died on Sunday. On Thursday, the 80-year-old Chang, Teo’s 11 children, 50 grandchildren and 17 great-grandchildren were joined by dozens of friends and relatives, bade farewell to her.

“She loved to help people and has never turned anyone away,” said her son-in-law Low Ah Tee.

Low said Teo had changed his perception on equality between man and women.

“I was born in a traditional family where men are given a higher status than the women.

“But after meeting my mother-in-law, I totally agreed with her that both are equal and should be treated the same,” said the 64-year-old retired teacher.

Teo’s daughter Wong Ee Teng said her mother had very strong determination and faith.

“When she was sick, she told herself that she would be well because she did not want to burden others,” she said.

She said her mother was a rubber tapper until she was 65 to support her family, as her father Wong Pang Say had asthma and was unable to work.

“She made sure the 12 of us got the best in education and others,” she said.

She added that among her siblings were a London-based IT consultant, retired teacher, tutor and nurse.

Wong Pang Say died in 1980, while Teo's eldest son died in 2002.

Teo was buried at the Yong Peng Christian Cemetery.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Perhaps, finally, Blair has come of age

ON Aug 1, when delivering the 22nd Sultan Azlan Shah Lecture, former British prime minister Tony Blair said the rule of law was more relevant than ever in today's era of globalisation.

"Although the rule of law is an initiation of political leaders, like me, it is also a vital component for political success as it ensures an orderly society," Blair said when presenting the lecture entitled "Upholding The Rule of Law: A Reflection".

I must say I could not agree more with him. We lawyers are often reminded of the celebrated words of the English pamphleteer Thomas Paine (1737-1809): "For as in absolute governments the king is law, so in free countries the law ought to be king; and there ought to be no other."

Likewise, the law governing international relations is the United Nations Charter. Indeed, international rule of law is a vital component for peace as it ensures an orderly world.

However, by supporting and participating in the 2003 United States-led invasion and occupation of Iraq, I wonder whether Britain, being the world's oldest democracy, still possesses moral authority in a comity of nations to lecture on the principle of rule of law.

On Sept 14 last year, Opinion Research Business, an independent polling agency in London, released estimates of the total war casualties in Iraq at over 1,220,580 deaths. Thousands more were maimed and scarred for life.

According to the report, the number exceeded even the 800,000 to 900,000 deaths in the Rwandan genocide in 1994, and may even overtake the 1.7 million casualties of Cambodia's killing fields in the 1970s, two great crimes of the last century.

Of course, the debate rages on whether the invasion of Iraq was a breach of international law.

Under international law, there are probably two grounds where the use of force is justified.

The first is provided for under Article 51 of the UN Charter, which confers an inherent right upon a state to use force in self-defence.

The other is when the use of force is authorised by the Security Council under Article 42 of the Charter.

It is interesting to note that both camps seem to rely on the UN Security Council Resolutions 678 and 1441 to justify their arguments for and against the invasion.

Resolution 678 was passed on Nov 29, 1990, then giving Iraq one final opportunity to withdraw from Kuwait by Jan 15, 1991, failing which members of the UN in cooperation with the government of Kuwait were authorised to use "all necessary means to uphold and implement Resolution 660 and all subsequent relevant resolutions and to restore international peace and security in the area".

UN Security Council Resolution 660 demanded that Iraq withdraw its forces unconditionally to the positions in which they were located before they invaded Kuwait on Aug 1, 1990.

Resolution 1441, passed unanimously on Nov 8, 2002, offered Iraq "a final opportunity to comply with its disarmament obligations".

The United States seemed to hold the view that Resolution 678, backed by Resolution 1441, was sufficient, without the need for any further resolution, to clothe it with the legal authority to use force against Iraq.

But how was that possible when there was no threat of an armed attack or act of aggression from Iraq, whether actual or imminent?

Similarly, the UN Charter does not permit such notion of pre-emptive strike or preventive war in international law as advanced by the US and its allies.

Iraq obviously did not commit or threaten to commit any act of "aggression" as defined by the UN General Assembly Resolution 3314 (XXIX).

In fact, during a 2004 interview with the BBC, the then UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan had this to say: "I have indicated it is not in conformity with the UN Charter, from our point of view, and from the Charter point of view it was illegal."

Similarly, the so-called "shock and awe" blitzkrieg to secure Iraq's compliance with its disarmament obligations was a totally disproportionate response, causing huge civilian casualties in breach of the Geneva Conventions of 1949 and their 1977 protocols.

It has now become abundantly clear that the infamous invasion was intended to remove Saddam Hussein, who in the eyes of the US and its allies was a recalcitrant dictator.

It is also abundantly clear that the UN inspectors who scoured Iraq for weapons of mass destruction did not eventually find any.

It is unfortunate that as a permanent member of the Security Council, Britain, then headed by Blair, did not stand up to this flagrant disregard of international law by the Bush administration.

Instead, Blair led Britain to join the US in this illegal war.

This went against the very foundation in which the UN Charter came into being after World War 2, that is, as stated in its preamble, "to save succeeding generations from the scourge of war, which twice in our lifetime has brought untold sorrow to mankind" .

Unless one has been bereft of loved ones before, one may not appreciate why parents, widows and orphans shriek and thump their chests crying to high heaven and pleading for justice in agony, misery and sorrow when their innocent children, spouses and parents perish in a war.

The preamble to the Charter also reaffirms faith in fundamental human rights, in the dignity and worth of the human person, in the equal rights of men and women and of nations large and small in order to establish conditions under which justice and respect for the obligations arising from treaties and other sources of international law can be maintained.

Hence, the manner in which suspected terrorists are treated and incarcerated speaks volumes of the US's record of respecting basic human rights.

Today and like before, history seems to be repeating itself. The Bush administration is now saying that any withdrawal of the US and allied troops will plunge Iraq into a civil war.

Looking back at history, when Britain invaded Iraq in 1917, the British, too, claimed to be the liberators and not conquerors of the Iraqis.

The reason was the same, that is, to set up democracy in Iraq. The then prime minister, Lloyd George, too, warned that if British troops should leave Iraq there would be civil war.

Abandoned Iraq, they did, and the Baath Party led by Saddam Hussein then took over.

Sadly, the mess now created in Iraq is the result of failure and refusal by powerful nations to respect and commit to international rule of law.

The invasion and continued occupation of Iraq have never been expressly authorised by the UN Security Council.

Winston Churchill once put it aptly: "The whole history of the world is summed up in the fact that, when nations are strong, they are not always just, and when they wish to be just, they are no longer strong."

As the UN is powerless to act and enforce international law when the culprits are the world's powerful nations, one can only leave it to history to judge whether Bush, Blair, John Howard and the others are saviours or butchers of the Iraqis.

Published in New Straits Times, 10 August 2008