Know your constitutional rights as citizens

MOST Malaysians are unaware of their rights as citizens of this country. They simply accept as gospel all the pronouncements concerning their rights and restrictions by the authorities.

Citizens' rights are enshrined in the Constitution as well as in the Native Customary Laws and in the Syariah for Muslims. They are regulatory principles based on the precepts of justice, as mechanisms to govern individual and communal behaviour and interactions.

The Legislature, one of the three branches of governance, besides the Executive and Judiciary, is the august body made up of people's representatives that formulates and amends the Constitution from time to time to suit the prevailing circumstances. Amendments are made by way of a two-thirds majority, in the interest of justice and not based on the tyranny of the majority to effect sectarian ­advantage.

Various instruments of governance are emplaced to ensure that citizens' rights are not violated. The Judiciary is the supreme institution that oversees such issues in addition to criminal and civil matters.

Judicial review is an integral part of ensuring respect and observance of citizens' rights. A judiciary that acts as a check and balance of executive powers can ensure that the citizens' constitutional rights are not violated. A citizen can initiate due process to reclaim his or her rights, but the courts are the ultimate arbiter. Thus, courts that are impervious to extraneous influence are a prerequisite for the rightful observance of citizens' rights.

But this is not always the case for political expediency may result in the manipulation of the various instruments of governance to deny the citizens' lawful rights. Therefore, the citizens may not have recourse to these institutions that are supposed to protect their rights because these instruments of governance by virtue of their establishment are subservient to the dictates of the Executive.

Citizens are easily intimidated because of their ignorance and tend to accept the directives from the authorities as gospel and sacrosanct.

A case in point is the Sabah and Sarawak immigration control, which is part of the 20-point agreement in joining Malaysia. But this immigration control has been used to deny access to Malaysians from West Malaysia on innocent passage to discharge their constitutionally sanctioned political activities on the spurious grounds of posing as security risks.

In fact, the intention of immigration control is regulatory and not envisaged as punitive restriction. With proper documents, one should be able to move freely in these two states without unwarranted restrictions. The irony is that Malaysians from Sabah and Sarawak have unrestricted access to all the facilities and are free to work and stay in Peninsular Malaysia.

Then there is the right of individuals to undertake legally sanctioned business enterprises and are free to operate in a manner they see fit. As long as they comply with the licensing requirements they should not be coerced to submit to extraneous untoward non-business demands.

On the same vein, a citizen's right of domicile is irrevocable except on grounds of criminal or security related activities. In such cases he would be incarcerated or exiled to other parts of the country as the court deems fit.

But for the law-abiding citizen, he or she cannot be evicted from the state in which he is domiciled by anyone, even by those from the highest echelons of society. It is his/her constitutional right to live in the state of his/her choice.

Freedom of expression and the right to dissent have long been contentious issues between citizens and officialdom. The right to express one's ideas or thoughts in a written, verbal or visual format is circumscribed by various legislative measures such as the Seditious Act, the Official Secret Acts and the Police Act in Conformity with prevailing political sentiments.

An informed citizenry is crucial to ensure that its rights be given credence and due respect so that it could act as a check and balance in ensuring good governance and the protection of its constitutional rights.

Professor Emeritus Datuk Dr Mohamed Ghouse Nasuruddin is an honorary fellow at the Centre for Policy Research and International Studies (CenPRIS) and Associate Professor Dr Azeem Fazwan Ahmad Farouk is director at the Centre for Policy Research and International Studies, Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang