Bar: Court rulings suggest Putrajaya’s interests top Malaysians’ rights

One of the cases cited by Steven was M. Indira Gandhi’s challenge of the validity of her children’s unilateral conversion to Islam. ― Picture by Saw Siow Feng
One of the cases cited by Steven was M. Indira Gandhi’s challenge of the validity of her children’s unilateral conversion to Islam. ― Picture by Saw Siow Feng

KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 8 — Rulings in key constitutional cases last year gave the impression that the government’s interests trump the rights of Malaysians to fundamental liberties, Malaysian Bar president Steven Thiru said today.

Steven noted the courts appeared to give wide interpretations to restrictions on Malaysians’ fundamental freedoms in these cases, leading to criticism that the judiciary has abandoned their duty.

“The apparent reluctance of the court to invalidate legislation or state enactments on constitutional grounds is worrying, and has given rise to the public perception that the interest of the state prevails over the constitutional rights of citizens.

“The willingness on the part of the courts to cede their jurisdiction has been decried as an abdication of responsibility,” he said in his speech at the ceremonial opening of Malaysia’s Legal Year 2016.

Among the seven cases in the Court of Appeal and Federal Court listed by Steven today are publisher ZI Publications Sdn Bhd and Ezra Zaid’s challenge against a Selangor Shariah enactment; Universiti Malaya senior law lecturer Azmi Sharom’s constitutional challenge against the Sedition Act; three transgenders’ challenge against a Negri Sembilan Islamic law prohibiting Muslims’ cross-dressing; and M. Indira Gandhi’s challenge of the validity of her children’s unilateral conversion to Islam.

He also cited the cases involving R. Yuneswaran, See Chee How in relation to the redelineation of electoral boundaries in Sarawak and three Gerakan members’ challenge against Kelantan’s hudud laws.

These cases — which are related to Malaysians’ rights under the Federal Constitution to freedom of speech and expression, freedom of assembly, religious freedom, equality and to life — will have far-reaching impact on the rights of minorities, he also said.

While saying that the Malaysian Bar will defend the judiciary from unfair attacks that undermine its independence, Steven also highlighted two principles that must never be forgotten: The courts’ role as guardians of constitutional rights by giving them wide interpretations and imposing restrictions narrowly, and ensuring access to justice for all citizens.

Constitutional rights will become illusory if a citizen is not able to get legal redress from the court, Steven said, noting that courts must bear in mind that a lack of a legal remedy for a legal wrong suffered would lead to a loss of confidence in the judiciary.

Access to justice is particularly important for minorities, he said.

“The litmus test of a civilised society is the manner in which minorities and vulnerable groups are treated. As part of the citizenry, they look to the courts for the protection of their constitutional rights. They have no other avenue for justice,” he said.