On limits of human rights - a fresh perspective

Lawyer Philip Koh replies to IKIM article published in The Star on 24 Sept 2013.

[also in Letters page - The Star newspaper 26 Sept 2013]

On limits of human rights - a fresh perspective

I REFER to the article, “Under-standing limits of human rights” (The Star, Sept 24), which endeavours to bring a counterpoint to the discourse of human rights.

Unfortunately, the learned writer also used the occasion to critique the issue of application of the word Allah.

There was a lack of appreciation to the historical context of a faith community who has practised their faith and used the word as an address to the Almighty in liturgy, prayer and reading for centuries.

The writer points to Article 11(5) of the Federal Constitution and argues that the persistent use of the term could affect in particular the rights and reputations of others, national security, public order and morality. 

The implication is that the Christian community which has existed in this nation for centuries and which has made immense contribution to education, health-care and well-being of our beloved nation has misconducted itself by the usage of the term.

This is entirely unjustifiable and threatens to blind side the balance between fundamental liberties enshrined within the Federal Constitution. 

Firstly, the article selectively asserts that human rights discourse has become an “ism”. Coining the term “human rightism”, the writer goes on to derisively dismiss the claims of human rights.

A straw man is set up that no rights are absolute. It must be pointed out that no human rights apologist ever claims an absolute status to rights. 

The truism that rights entail duties is also thrown in. 

Again, no citizen of a nation or for that matter persons subsisting in a socio-political environment is oblivious of her duties to the community. 

However, what human rights discourse seeks to demarcate is that there are boundaries to state power apparatus. That laws and executive actions may not be used against minorities who may not share the values or practices of the majority. 

A Constitution that is worthy of respect and adherence must indeed give proper recognition to the claims of the minority.

The liberal discourse, of course, draws a line that practice of rights causes no harm to the other but nevertheless affirms that usages of minority communities must also be granted respect and recognition. 

The writer does not adduce any empirical or historical evidence that the faith community that has used the term Allah for at least a century (if not more) in Malaya and also Borneo has been a security threat, a health hazard and points towards immorality, and undermines good order. 

This is regrettable and mischievous and borders on group libel of loyal inhabitants and citizens of this nation. 

The Prime Minister’s 10-point agreement over the import and use of Alkitab explicitly recognises this aspect of historical claims and recognition to minorities. 

The Reid and Cobbold commissions also affirmed this fundamental nature of these preserved liberties. So too with the 20-points Federal agreement with the Borneo states.

Furthermore, it is assumed by the writer that the faith community is wrong in their current pursuit of the matter legally. 

In what way can a community be deemed to be wrongful in pursuing a matter of their faith through legal means? 

The Constitution gives full recognition to minority faith communities to conduct and manage their affairs and educate their members (see Article 11(3)). 

Does the author desire to make illegal wide swath of members of a community who only wants to practise their faith? 

For the writer to arrogate to himself as to how another faith community need to discharge their duties is a sad reflection of the growing intolerance and ignorance of our Constitutional polity. 

The flowering of civilisation and strength of human communities is the acceptance of other communities and permitting the same to subsist and be managed by their own without interference and intrusion.

PHILIP TN KOH

Co-editor of Sheridan & Groves,
The Constitution of Malaysia 5th edition (Lexis Nexis)