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'I Don't Kowtow'
Malaysia's new human rights chief speaks out

Malaysia has come under criticism at home and abroad for its human rights record. The photos of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, badly beaten by the country's top cop, still haunt the administration of Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad. To help counter the critics, Malaysia has set up a National Commission on Human Rights, which convened for the first time on Monday. The 13-member body, headed by another ex-Deputy Prime Minister, Musa Hitam, has instilled hope among some Malaysians that the country's human-rights situation will improve. But it needs to show that it's more than just window-dressing for the government.

On the eve of the commission's inaugural meeting, Time Asia's Kuala Lumpur reporter Ken Stier spoke with Musa. Excerpts:

TIME: How did you become leader of the commission?
Musa Hitam:
I can claim personal responsibility for the formation of the commission. [Several years ago] I approached the government to say, "Look, we do need a national commission on human rights for Malaysia." Initially there was literally outright hostility toward the very idea: it was identified to be too foreign -- not Malaysian -- to be dealing with human rights. So from outright hostility to acceptance of the need, to the formation of the body -- [these] have been significant steps in the right direction.
In an exercise like this, one needs to appreciate the need to sensitize those in positions of authority. I am not saying they are hard-headed people, but they need convincing.

TIME: What does the public expect from the commission?
The biggest problem that the commission will face is matters related to politics. Firstly, the political parties will make demands in accordance to their own calculations. Then there are the NGOs: some are more political in nature than objective, but some are dealing with substantial issues like human rights. I would regard them to be the more genuine groups in that they are not out to get votes, they are not out to play to the gallery; they were formed because they have got special interests. These groups of course, need to be looked at. Of course, there are always emotions that could be stirred when it touches on the more political aspects on the promotion of human rights.
Then there is the general public, which more often then not will be less educated, less exposed to human rights issues. They are the ones that we need to pay attention to. They are the ones that need exposure about human rights principles before you can really think of promoting them. It is they who will decide that what we are proposing, what we are doing, is really in accordance with promoting their interests.

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TIME: Are you satisifed with the response to the commission thus far?
I am happy to say that, so far there seems to be a very positive response to the individuals that have made up the commission. Of course, there are voices that say there should be more women; some question the appointment or one or two individuals. But all things considered, I am very happy with members of the commission. They represent a cross-section of people who are the most qualified, under the circumstances, to make up the commission.
My priority is first to form ourselves into a family, to establish the confidence of being a family and having a very good working relationship and then embark on our program of action.

TIME: What is that program?
I don't want to announce any program of action. I am just telling you that we must have a clear one. We are not an arbiter; we are not an enforcer. We are the ones that can come to conclusions on issues and pass it on. We will be able to provide views that are not partisan, that people respect, so much so that they have to conform, or that they will feel obliged, morally at least, to conform. I think if we achieve that we will go far.
Then there are longer-term issues related to human rights. This is the on-going process that we always have to be conscious of, specifically in terms of education and what I call this process of sensitization of the whole population: the political leadership, the ordinary man, the whole range.
In the short-term we have to deal with the daily issues related to human rights. The law does provide for us to have hearings, to summon people, the legal power to institute inquiries. And we will have to decide how to proceed. My worry is simply that the expectations are so high and the responsibilities, which indeed I recognize to be huge, are such that we might be swamped by so many of things we are expected to do and yet are physically not able to do. I was having a nice life -- now I beginning to feel the heat.

TIME: What kind of staff and budget will you have?
Even though the commission has been established I don't have an office yet. I have two or three officials from the Foreign Ministry dealing with it at the moment, but they also have to attend all sorts of other meetings. But I have been assured that the government will provide the staffing as soon as possible so that we can have a full-time secretariat, but that is going to take some time. I would give it a few months before we can get even the real core group going. We will have a full-time secretariat of something like 20 to 30. We are operating not even on a shoestring basis now, nothing.
Initially the staff will be [civil servants] seconded from government, but ultimately the commission will recruit their own staff. We can not manage without government officials backing us up for the time being anyway. We will be given the authority to recruit our own staff; when, I don't know. I don't expect it for this first term of ours, for the first two years, for practical reasons. As for the budget I have been assured there will be enough.

TIME: Why do you think the Prime Minister has agreed to the formation of human rights commission now? Isn't he taking a risk accepting you as its head?
I have been prodding him [on setting up a rights commission] for quite a few years, personally talking to him, trying to persuade him. The fact that it is his government which has approved it and taken the initiative to get the law passed, this is very encouraging and positive and I have said this publicly.
He knows what this is all about now. He knows what we are going to do and what we are going to say. He does know me very well, incidentally, well enough to know not to expect me to be passive or to be anything but me. He knows I am not mainstream, that I don't kowtow, but shrugged his shoulders and said, "People think of you when they think of human rights, O.K." He has all the power to stop my appointment, but he agreed; I was pleasantly surprised.
And my appointment is a plus for him, in spite of perhaps being something of a risk. He deserves credit for that. But rather than unpredictable, the commission will have to act in accordance with the situation and with issues related to it. We will not have to try to impress anybody, not even the population. We will just do our job in the context of trying to promote and sustain interest in human rights issues in the country, as well as internationally.

TIME: Some have drawn a parallel between you and the former head of the human rights commission in Indonesia, Marzuki Darusman, who surprised many by proving to be his own man and pushing through a pretty tough agenda.
I know Marzuki [currently Indonesia's Attorney-General] well enough. But why should I satisfy people's speculation about where I am going? I am not interested in impressing people in whether I am going to be a Marzuki or not. For one thing, Marzuki is a much younger man than I am; I have just celebrated my 66th birthday. I have no political agenda. A recent editorial in the Utusan Malaysia said that "[Tengku] Razaleigh and Musa are dead and buried, politically." I wrote back thanking them for the last rites but also saying that even though I am dead and buried I intend to stay critical. I have no political ambitions: no, it is too late. I would like to see younger people coming into politics. If you read my speech in Johor recently you will see that I hope that there will be more freedom and democracy here. What is happening in Indonesia will certainly not be what will be happening in Malaysia in terms of the human rights commission.

TIME: Given the time you have served at the U.N. Commission for Human Rights I would guess that you do subscribe to the definition of human rights as provided in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

TIME: But isn't there a contradiction between that view and the "fundamental liberties" provided under Malaysia's Constitution, which are delimited by a slew of colonial-era laws: the Internal Security Act, the Official Secrets Act, the Printing and Publications Act, the Police Act, etc.
Much has been made of this, but it doesn't bother me really. It is not going to be that restrictive as you and others interpret it. As far as I am concerned there are restrictive elements in the Constitution in so far as it suits Malaysia's needs; that is what national constitutions are all about. Malaysia is Malaysia. There are certain things you don't touch, like the sultan, religion -- this is tradition, culture, history, that comes into play. If you wanted to have the ideal conformity to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, no country in this small earth of ours qualifies. So Malaysia is as unqualified as the others. But in so far as obvious laws etc. that we feel are not in conformity [with present conditions], I will not hesitate in making comments and recommendations because to me even the Constitution is essentially laws formulated by parliament. If and when I feel it is necessary, I will say that these laws are not suitable. All the government needs to do is agree or not agree and institute a review of it. It is up to the government, up to the leaders, to make it a political issue or otherwise. What is so unconstitutional about that? Iit doesn't worry me, really.

TIME: But do you think there are some laws that are unsuitable?
Yes, I will identify them. I am not going to tell you now, but I might tell you later. One of the exercises I am going to do is have the commission list international covenants, laws and treaties and identify which are the ones we have acceded to and which are ones we have not, and which are the ones which we should, and why and how. Secondly, there might be laws that we feel are necessary to introduce in the country, or to revise, or new laws, or amendments. We will identify the [unsuitable] laws.

TIME: Some NGOs have said that the right of free assembly, which is guaranteed by the Constitution, is severely restricted.
It is their right to say that, and we will pay attention to that if they make representations. Give us a chance. We'll do it.

TIME: Aliran and others have said your commission should have been out during the April 15 demonstrations marking the anniversary of the sentencing of former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim to see how the protesters were treated.
The commission exists only in name now. [If I had gone] people would say, "Ah, he is seeking publicity." There are going to be expectations galore, there will be demands galore, there will be petitions galore, there will be criticism galore. They are free to do that. In a situation where emotions run high it is always unwise to act at that time. We have got a long-term responsibility.
This morning I opened my mail, I have already received lots of demands, some I can not even decipher what they are saying: issues that are not even our job at all. But expectations, hopes, are so high: "Ah, Musa Hitam, we will write to him." We should be here to stay, not as a temporary stop-gap measure.

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