Are Malaysians guaranteed freedom of speech, assembly and association?

PETALING JAYA: Does Article 10 of the Federal Constitution which guarantees Malaysian citizens freedom of speech, assembly and association offer this protection?

This question got 52 people from 15 non-governmental organisations (NGOs), including trade unions, opposition parties and community-based and student groups, together yesterday (March 16, 2006)to compare experiences.

Organised by Community Development Committee, the roundtable discussion at the Crystal Crown Hotel here unanimously concluded that Article 10 did not offer that freedom as enshrined.

Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) commissioner Prof Datuk Dr Hamdan Adnan, in his keynote address, said NGOs can make use of Suhakam for this issue.

"Many government agencies hate Suhakam and at least we have the power to hold public enquiries.

"If Suhakam does not do the job of protecting human rights, then hantam (hit out at) them and if they still fail, ask them to close down," he said.

Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM) pro-tem secretary-general S. Arutchelvan said he would initiate a joint memorandum with the participating NGOs.

"It will take about two weeks, and then we will submit it to Suhakam and if there are those interested in pursuing legal action, the Bar Council has offered its services to help the cause," he added.

He said all citizens have the right to form associations under Article 10 but PSM's application and persistence for registration since 1998 has gone awry and without reason.

"The rejection letter we received on Sept 23, 1999, provided no reasons and was final," he said, adding that they had taken the case to court and lost. They are appealing the case.

The other views:

Malaysian Bar member Amer Hamzah Arshad: "The judicial system is entrusted to uphold the Federal Constitution and judges take oaths to do this. It is a sad state of affairs when they leave it to the executive power which can impose whatever conditions if deemed to be a threat to national security.

"Everyone is being affected but the term national security should be defined and authorities should be challenged so as not to trample on human rights further."

Malaysian Trade Union Congress president Syed Shahir Syed Mohamud: "It's not easy for unions to be formed even if they follow the country's law and to date, Malaysia has still not rectified Convention 87 (Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize Convention, 1948) and despite MTUC's complaints, there has still been no positive change."

Amnesty International Malaysia executive director Josef Roy Benedict: "We have been struggling with the issue for the past 15 years and AI's registration under the Registrar of Societies (ROS) is still being restricted by the Societies Act 1966 along with other organisations which are facing difficulties.

"The Societies Act denies the rights of individuals and groups to form associations freely and causes restraint to NGOs' growth and capacity."