Tan Sri Hasmy Agam, Human Rights Commission of Malaysia
August 2010: Dealing with complex challenges is something the newly appointed Chairperson of SUHAKAM has confronted ever since beginning his career as a young diplomat.
Tan Sri Hasmy Agam, SUHAKAM Chaiperson
Dealing with complex challenges is something that Tan Sri Hasmy Agam, the newly appointed Chairperson of the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM), has confronted ever since he began his career as a young diplomat.
“My first posting was to Saigon in 1969. It was one year after the Tet Offensive and things were very uncertain,” he remembers. “It was a very tough, very unsettling environment but also very exciting.”
“After a few months I became completely fascinated with serving in the field, especially the opportunity it gave me to relate to people from different backgrounds, with different experiences and perspectives.”
He went on to hold senior positions in Washington, London, Libya and Paris and also served as Malaysia’s permanent representative to the United Nations from 1998 to 2003.
However, Tan Sri Hasmy says that leading SUHAKAM, and responding to Malaysia’s complex domestic human rights issues, will be just as challenging – if not more so – than any of his previous roles.
He highlights a number of priority areas for the organisation at the start of his three-year term: promoting the rights of minority groups, protecting the rights of migrant workers and advocating for reforms to legislation, especially the Internal Security Act (ISA).
Monitoring and education
In early August, two of the newly-appointed SUHAKAM Commissioners attended a candlelight vigil marking the 50th anniversary of the ISA to observe the conduct of the police. In 2009, on the same occasion, police had used tear gas and water cannons to disperse a crowd of 1,500 people.
“In the past, this [monitoring work] was not done because it was considered an unlawful assembly and SUHAKAM didn’t want to be supporting any unlawful activity. Be we feel the Act allows us to monitor,” Tan Sri Hasmy recently told The Star newspaper.
“We made contact with the police and gave our reasons for being there ... Maybe because of our presence they exercised some restraint. We will continue to do this.”
He also says it is important for SUHAKAM to provide practical training and education programs for law enforcement officials.
“That is another challenge for us. We have to engage constructively with policy makers, police, prison officers and others to inculcate a sense of value and respect for human rights.”
It is part of a broader, community-wide goal of human rights education that Tan Sri Hasmy is keen to progress.
“Malaysia today is a multi-ethnic and multi-racial country. We need to move beyond simply promoting tolerance of people who are different. We need to build understanding and respect for different perspectives and different values,” he says.
Another priority for SUHAKAM will be to focus on the rights of Malaysia’s minority groups.
“They are the original people of the country and their concerns and interests must be taken into account,” says Tan Sri Hasmy.
“While these issues have been looked at before, it hasn’t happened in a comprehensive way. We need to look at questions around land and development, as well as access to education and improved opportunities for them to participate in mainstream society, if that’s what they want.”
He says that SUHAKAM will consider holding a national forum, along with community-level meetings, to discuss these issues in detail.
“But it’s also an area where we would like to learn effective approaches that other national human rights institutions in the region have taken to address these issues.”
Similarly, Tan Sri Hasmy believes that cooperation between national human rights institutions is crucial in tackling the problems faced by the region’s growing number of migrant workers.
“While the domestic situations in our countries can be different, many of the challenges are the same. So it is important that we learn from each other and share our knowledge and experiences.”
Tan Sri Hasmy says he is focused on raising SUHAKAM’s profile and ensuring it is a credible and effective voice for human rights.
“I think it is important to raise the visibility and increase the influence of SUHAKAM,” he says.
“We’ve not done too badly previously in terms of creating awareness of human rights but, for instance, I would like to get Parliament debating our reports and discussing the issues we raise.”
He also notes the importance of developing new tools to advance human rights, such as the ability for SUHAKAM to appear in cases before the courts as amicus curiae (or ‘friend of the court’).
“Other national human rights institutions have that power and we will dialogue with the government to try to bring that here,” he says.
In pursuing these goals, he says he plans to draw on and bolster the organisation’s key strength: its staff.
“We have many talented and professional staff working for SUHAKAM and we want to encourage them to stay on. I would love to see to them grow and develop in their skills and expertise so that, one day, they could be the Secretary, a Commissioner or even the Chairperson.”