A colonial rule of law

Manuel L. Quezon III
Philippine Daily Inquirer

The Philippines used to be the odd man out, for what fellow Southeast Asians considered the Filipinos’ lunatic fetish for protesting at the drop of a hat. Such protests, critics from neighboring countries (and quite a few Filipinos) argued, neither achieved increased liberty nor any tangible improvement in living conditions, including limiting corruption. While public opinion is overwhelmingly critical of Philippine officialdom, the ruling coalition, however, makes vigorous use of the country’s Revised Penal Code, which dates back to 1930, and was passed to uphold American sovereignty. Every Philippine government since autonomy was achieved in 1935 and independence restored in 1946 has found the colonial provisions highly convenient.

The Asia Sentinel, a truly admirable online news site, chronicled the demonstrations that took place in Malaysia last year: two of them quite remarkable protests, indeed, including a march to deliver a petition to the King of Malaysia. More recently, 10,000 lawyers marched in Putrajaya to protest judicial corruption, an issue that provoked members of Malaysia’s normally politically neutral royalty to speak out.

Malaysia’s Internal Security Act has its origins in 1948 but in its present form dates to the twilight of British rule in then-Malaya, when the British fought (and successfully crushed) a communist insurgency. But even the original version of the legislation provided for a means for judicial review of arrests, but since independence, this option was removed when independent Malaysia reenacted the law with very few changes, in 1963. In the wake of the November protests in Kuala Lumpur, and expectations that protests will take place this month, Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, formerly publicly unenthusiastic about internal security legislation, has taken to issuing statements that he will enforce the law’s provisions.

Even in Singapore, where the government has no qualms about enforcing laws that essentially cocoon the ruling Lee dynasty from any criticism and ensures one-party government, dissent simply won’t go away.

The blog Singapore Election Watch, for example, chronicled a protest action last September (against the compulsory annuity decreed by the government: essentially, forced savings which can’t be touched, and which requires citizens to purchase government annuities that only mature when the citizens reach 85 years of age; the government holdings company is managed by the prime minister’s wife). Citizens simply appeared at Centrepoint in black shirts, which left the authorities puzzled over what to do.

Then again, Singapore’s government relies on its Internal Security Act, which dates back to Singapore’s former association with Malaysia—and which dates back to British colonial legislation passed for the same purposes as the Philippine Penal Code.

It’s interesting that Reginald Hugh Hickling, a British lawyer who was the author of the British-era Internal Security Act, later lamented, “I could not imagine then that the time would come when the power of detention, carefully and deliberately interlocked with Article 149 of the Constitution, would be used against political opponents, welfare workers and others dedicated to nonviolent, peaceful activities.”

Southeast Asia’s political classes continue to put a premium on social order, consensus, and, as much as possible, one-party rule (most effectively assured in Singapore, more prudently made possible by tinkering with electoral rules in Malaysia until the recent challenges to those rules, and never-quite-absent in the Philippines and also the tendency of the political class in Indonesia). The citizenry of these countries, however, are increasingly vocal about feeling otherwise.

There is, of course, a generational aspect to this clash, between party elders, most of them representing traditional political families in their respective countries, and an increasingly aggressive middle class more interested in meritocracy than traditional notions of obedience. There is also, however, an impatience with business-as-usual, when that business seems more often than not to involve a so cozy as to be incestuous relationship between bureaucrats, politicians and big business, all of whose interests are protected by vigorous use of their respective national security and military services.

At the heart of the debate is the irony of former colonies whose governments rely, for the maintenance of their authority, on legislation inherited from their colonial rulers. As modernizing societies in Southeast Asia begin to demand an authentic rule of law, greater social mobility, and the replacement of traditional ruling families with leaders more representative of the growing middle classes of these nations, governments are increasingly being put in the position of the former colonial powers: using the law to beat down clamor for reform.

Yet this is a clamor that won’t go away, regardless of the bayonets in the hands of the authorities. Even in Hong Kong, pro-democracy leader Anson Chan won a significant victory for a seat in the former colony’s legislature. In a Reuters report, Ma Ngok, an associate professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, said, “I think it shows that a lot of middle class people in Hong Kong still care about democracy, even though the economy is getting better, the stock market is rising, and the economy is more dependent on China.”

In other words, the old, traditionalist argument so beloved of officialdom throughout the region, that freedom is a fetish that can be discarded in the interest of economic progress, isn’t holding water. And governments in the region don’t know what on earth to do, except ape the colonial masters they’ve overthrown.

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