winners of Civil Society Award 2007

[size=medium]The Kuala Lumpur and Selangor Chinese Assembly Hall
Civil Society Award 2007 Ceremony
28 August 2008
Speech by P. Ramakrishnan[/size]

Esteemed leaders of the KLSCAH, Distinguished guests, Friends, Ladies and Gentlemen:

1. Please permit me, first, on behalf of the Civil Society Award’s Committee, to thank the KLSCAH for appointing us to this Committee to select the winners of the Civil Society Award 2007. My fellow Committee members and I are honoured to have been invited to perform this meaningful service to our society.

2. We would like to congratulate the KLSCAH for its inspiring idea and sincere effort to recognize and reward various conscientious individuals and groups who have struggled relentlessly to promote human rights and defend civil liberties in our nation.

3. I would like to clarify some of the criteria used by the Committee in reaching its decisions and selection. We took care to look for nominees whose struggles were inclusive and encompassed broad ethnic, class and social backgrounds. We valued activities and actions that practised democratic principles. We’ve take into account the severity of the pressures faced by nominees and the courage and creativity of their responses.

4. In the process of making our selection, the Committee members operated by discussion and consensus, not by awarding points. Abiding by the Civil Society Award’s Regulations and Conditions, the Committee has chosen the maximum number of three winners who, in our considered opinion, are the most deserving.

5. Let us not shy from noting that the dedication and selflessness of all those who are part of the Award winners have done much to preserve our multi-ethnic character and culture in the face of indifference and even hostility from too many of our politicians and so-called leaders.

6. The winners of this year’s Award, no less than the winners of past Awards, are admirable individuals and organizations. They have proven, through active co-operation, mutual support, and imaginative networking, that committed struggles, honest work and a respect for fundamental principles of democracy and justice can solidly unite concerned citizens of different communities and backgrounds.

7. Today, by honouring the winners of the Civil Society Award, we celebrate and reaffirm the spirit and struggles of our national movement to defend and advance human rights and civil liberties.

8. It is my privilege, on behalf of the Committee, to announce the winners of the Award. Before I do that, may I just mention that we’re not at the Olympics: we do not give out gold, silver and bronze medals to differentiate between the performances of the three winners.

9. No, the Committee – and, I’m certain, all of you, Ladies and
Gentlemen – value their achievements equally. Each winner will receive an award of RM5,000/-, a trophy and a certificate.

10. In alphabetical order, the first of the three winners is Gerakan Mansuhkan ISA (GMI) or the Abolish ISA Movement (AIM).

I. Gerakan Mansuhkan ISA (GMI)

11. GMI was formed in response to the detention in April 2001, under the Internal Security Act, of the Reformasi 10 – that is, 10 citizens who were prominent in the Reformasi movement in April 2001. GMI was formed on the morning of April 10, the day the detentions of the Reformasi 10 began.

12. The movement brought together the spouses of the detainees, Opposition politicians and NGO activists. GMI’s initial priorities were to stand in solidarity with the detainees and their families, to provide the detainees’ families with moral and material support, and to assist them in obtaining information on the whereabouts, conditions and treatment of their beloved ones.

13. GMI mobilized national and international support for the detainees and their families. In its national and international anti-ISA publicity campaigns and representations before SUHAKAM, GMI exposed the cynical political motives behind the ISA detentions, exposed the physical and mental torture of the detainees, and brought pressure upon the Malaysian government to release all the detainees.

14. GMI’s dedicated networking with internationally reputable human rights groups – such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the United Nations Human Rights Committee, IHRC, and Law Asia – prevented Malaysia’s ‘prisoners of conscience’ from being ignored or forgotten. Indeed, even the government-established SUHAKAM published a Special Report in 2003 that conceded that the Malaysian government had abused the ISA for political purposes.

15. GMI’s courageous stand, the solidarity of the detainees’ families, the splendid assistance of human rights lawyers, and the firm support of other civil society organizations helped to secure the release of four of the Reformasi 10 by the end of the 60-day detention period, two as a result of successful habeas corpus appeals. The remaining six detainees were incarcerated for two years but their detention orders were not renewed.

16. However, GMI’s efforts did not stop at securing the release of the Reformasi 10. After September 11, 2001, new victims of the ISA were imprisoned, mostly on unproven charges of involvement in supposed underground militant Islamic activities. Such was the intensified use of the ISA, in the wake of the USA’s ‘War on terror’, that up to 100 persons may have been detained who have not been tried on specific charges, let alone convicted, in an open court of law.

17. Despite facing severe logistical constraints, and in the face of government-orchestrated campaigns of fear, GMI continued to monitor the conditions and treatment of detainees and to provide support to the families. GMI has uncompromisingly demanded the release of all untried and un-convicted ‘Prisoners of conscience’, and the repeal of ISA itself.

18. Ladies and Gentlemen, as you can see from last year’s detention of five HINDRAF leaders, the use and abuse of ISA continues each time the government chooses repression as its preferred way to managing dissent in our country.

19. To justify its repressive resort to ISA, each time the government tries to frighten our society with allegations of racial and religious extremism without having to prove its allegations in an open court of law.

20. Fortunately, the government finds it harder and harder to justify its abuse of ISA. Today, our society has become more acutely aware of the need to abolish ISA if we are to advance the causes of freedom, democracy and justice in this country. Fortunately, this awareness has been achieved on a multiethnic basis.

21. For this advance – although we have no reason to be complacent about the work that awaits us all – we have much to thank the concerned, committed and courageous citizens who have established GMI as a multiethnic and non-partisan organization devoted to the struggle against ISA and other forms of injustices.

Ladies and Gentlemen

II. I am pleased to announce the next winner of the Award, namely, Jawatan Kuasa Semakan Cukai Tanah Negeri Kedah or the Kedah State Quit Rent Review Special Task Force.

22. Many of us may not have heard of the Kedah State Quit Rent Review Special Task Force. We may, therefore, wonder what ‘Quit rent’ has to do with civil society.

23. The fact is, injustice can take many forms, and the fight against it, too, must take different forms.

24. In January 2006, the government of the state of Kedah announced new quit rent rates. No one disputed that any state government had the right, even the duty, to review quit rent rates from time to time.

25. But, at one go, the Kedah government wanted to impose very high increases. To take a shocking example, the new rates meant a 10,000 per cent increase in the quit rent that had to be paid by the Chinese Recreational Club Stadium of South Kedah. The quit rent was to be raised from RM250/- per year to RM25,142/- per year.

26. The Kedah State Quit Rent Review Special Task Force was established to appeal against unreasonably high rates, that is, to appeal for reasonable increases that did not unduly burden individual and social landowners.

27. Ideally, the Task Force should have had a straightforward duty of representing the public interest in this matter to the state government.

28. Certain politicians linked to Barisan Nasional component parties took the lead in the Task Force. More accurately, they would not take any real lead for fear of offending the State government.

29. The Task Force included eight MPs and State Assembly representatives. However, they did almost nothing for over a year. They were unwilling to present an accurate picture of public unhappiness over the matter. They proved to be incapable of pressing the Task Force’s case before the State government.

30. Happily, after April 2007, there were members of the Task Force who were prepared to assume its leadership and find ways of campaigning against the unreasonably high increases in quit rent.

31. In the face of many difficulties, the new Task Force leadership launched a nation-wide multiethnic, NGO-supported ‘Million Signature Campaign’ in May 2007 to compel the State government to reconsider its quit rent review. Eventually the campaign secured 12,000 signatures across the nation.

32. The Task Force requested MCA and Gerakan Cabinet ministers, deputy ministers and MPs to submit letters of support to the Kedah Legislative Assembly. Instead of receiving support from those quarters, the Task Force was accused by them of behaving like an Opposition party, or manipulating the Opposition against the government.

33. By its sustained struggle, the Task Force managed to get the State government to announce on 24 February 2008 – just two weeks before the 8 March general election – that the government had considered and would review its earlier quit rent review!

34. Yet the government’s new proposals were still unfair: the rates would still remain high, and, in a move that was unconstitutional and potentially divisive, there would be differential rates for bumiputera and non-bumiputera landowners. Hence, the Task Force committed itself to a continuing struggle for fair quit rent rates for all.

35. As we all know, after 8 March, Kedah had a new state government. The new, that is, current Menter Besar has promised to review all rates in appreciation of the support of the voters in Kedah. Now, after 27 months of campaigning, the Task Force is on the verge of securing its objectives.

36. The contributions and support of many, many people were indispensable to the success of the Task Force.

37. Yet, it is only fair to mention the special role played by Mr David Lim, the second Chairperson of the Task Force, who picked up the struggle when the earlier leadership had left it in limbo. Owing to his commitment and courage, farsightedness and creativity, he was able to lead the Task Force at a critical moment to motivate a much broader social movement.

38. Thus, the Task Force and Mr David Lim are fine examples of how civil society must constantly search for new paths of inspiring resistance against injustice, especially at the everyday level where it matters greatly to a great number of ordinary citizens.

Ladies and Gentlemen

III. The third and final winner of this year’s Award is Persatuan Kampung Sungai Terentang Rawang, or the Village Association of Sungai Terentang, Rawang.

39. The Sg. Terentang New Village, with 5,000 residents, lies about 28 km from Kuala Lumpur. In 2005, the villagers were instructed by Tenaga Nasional Berhad (TNB) and the Gombak Land Office to vacate their houses so that TNB could replace its existing 33-kv transmission lines with 275-kv high tension transmission lines. The project would cost TNB RM324 million.

40. But, more than that, it could cost the Village’s 5,000 residents very dearly. The residents feared that the proposed high-tension transmission lines would adversely affect their health. They were especially concerned of the long-term health risks faced by their children who were potentially subjected to radiation from the transmission cables that would be installed near to the two schools in the Village, namely, SRJK (C) San Yuk Rawang and SMK Rawang.

41. The Village has tried to negotiate with TNB, with the MP for their area, and with the Ministry of Water, Energy and Telecommunications.

42. The residents proposed alternative alignments for the cables that would run across vacant agricultural land. The alternative alignments would not require resettlement of the residents, and would go a long way to reducing the risks to their health.

43. The Village’s proposal was rejected. No acceptable reason was given. Nor have the residents accepted what they considered to be inadequate compensation offered by TNB.

44. As so often happens in such cases, TNB sought to evict residents forcibly so that its contractors could commence work. TNB had the assistance of TNB’s auxiliary police, enforcement officers from Selayang Municipal Council and the Rawang police force.

45. Even the intervention of a Selangor State Exco member, and the support of other politicians could not persuade TNB to relocate its transmission cables and a high-tension tower, or to postpone the construction work.

46. When, at last, the residents, including their children, demonstrated to protect their homes and their schools, several of them were arrested. Among them was Mr Goh Ah Kow, Chairperson of the Rawang Action Committee against High Tension Transmission Cables.

47. Since then, the Sg. Terentang Village Association has been compelled to take its case to the High Court. A judicial review of the case has been approved. But the Village has still to obtain a court injunction to stop TNB from starting construction work.

Ladies and Gentlemen

48. Once more, many of us here might not have heard of the Sg. Terentang Village Association. After all, it is a humble association of ordinary people living in a small village.

49. But their struggle is important – not just for the residents and their children, but to civil society as a whole.

50. There are constant attempts to misrepresent the national civil liberties movement. One favourite tactic is to misrepresent it as a movement of irresponsible people. It is said, then, these people make a lot of noise about abstract rights but are always blindly opposed to development projects that benefit the people.

51. I don’t need to tell anyone here that that is a lie meant to discredit a lot of humble people who firmly refuse to submit to the dictates of more powerful organizations, be they government agencies, political parties, or commercial bodies.

52. Today, the Sg. Terentang Village Association’s continuing struggle is part of our struggle. Their struggle is a timely reminder to all that development must mean development with justice. And, above all, justice can only be meaningful when ordinary, humble people can readily and peacefully obtain it – especially when they confront those who have much greater political or corporate or economic power at their disposal.

53. In honouring the residents of Sg. Terentang Village, we reaffirm that human rights and civil liberties are not abstractions and luxuries. They are part and parcel of the lives and dignity of ordinary citizens.

Esteemed members of the KLSCAH, the winners of this year’s Award,

Ladies and Gentlemen

Let me say in conclusion that while the Committee had a difficult task selecting three winners from several worthy nominees, we considered our duty to be a very pleasant one. I hope no one objects if I say that I trust the next Committee for next year’s Awards will have a harder time selecting worthy winners from an even larger pool of strong
candidates for this wonderful Award.

Thank you.

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