KUALA LUMPUR, May 12 — A new rule that forces all commissioners to retire simultaneously has left the decade-old Malaysian Human Rights Commission, better known as Suhakam, bereft of people for the first time in its existence and causing complaints to pile up.
All 16 members had to resign last April 23 to enable a new line-up of commissioners to be named, but thus far, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak has yet to announce the new appointments, which has lead to uneasiness among human rights activists.
The lack of commissioners came to light when Pakatan Rakyat Youth complained about the April 26 death of Aminulrasyid Amzah, three days after the entire commission quit in compliance with amendments to the Suhakam Act.
Three ex-commissioners — Datuk Seri Muhammad Shafee Abdullah, Datuk Dr Michael Yeoh and Datuk Dr Denison Jayasooria — had to be drafted to a special Home Ministry panel to oversee investigations into the schoolboy’s shooting death.
“This is a tragedy,” former Suhakam commissioner Tan Sri Ramon Navaratnam told The Malaysian Insider when commenting on the empty bench in the commission, which was previously led by former Attorney-General Tan Sri Abu Talib Othman.
It is understood the new rule came about when the Suhakam Act was amended last year in response to a threat of being downgraded from status “A” to “B” by an international group, which had urged for Suhakam’s independence to be strengthened by a clear and transparent “appointment/dismissal process”.
Najib has yet to announce a new Suhakam line-up. — file pic
The amendment provided for the formation of a five-man committee, which the prime minister is obliged to consult before he recommends names to the King. Media reports said a selection committee has picked nine candidates, including Malaysia’s former United Nations permanent representative, Tan Sri Hasmy Agam, for the new team.
“There should be continuity in the Suhakam leadership. I feel that the appointments should be done in stages, not all of them resigning because their terms have expired,” said Navaratnam, who served for two terms until 2008.
The retired civil servant said overlapping terms of office would prevent a vacuum in Suhakam and also enable new commissioners to learn from the “senior” ones. Each term of office is for two years.
Najib himself announced the appointment of the last line-up of 16 commissioners in April 2008, when he was the deputy prime minister.
A former Suhakam commissioner confirmed that they all resigned to comply with the new rule.
“However, the new rule doesn’t look practical... We have to go back to the old practice where the appointments are made in stages, not what is being done now,” he said, declining to be named.
Navaratnam also said that each commissioner’s term of office should be limited to two terms of four years or at the most a maximum of three terms. “There should be limits,” he added.
But PAS vice-president Datuk Mahfuz Omar said the “lack of action in filling the commission, although just for three weeks, is a great tragedy”.
“It is a tragedy for the country for failing to meet the aims of establishing Suhakam,” he said, adding the only way to avoid the problem from recurring was to leave the appointments to a Parliamentary committee.
“I urge the prime minister to bring the issue of appointments to a Parliamentary committee to recommend suitable candidates for the Yang di-Pertuan Agong’s consent,” the Pokok Sena MP told The Malaysian Insider.
He stressed that there should not be any delays in forming a new Suhakam line-up.
Universiti Sains Malaysia’s Associate Professor Sivamurugan Pandian said the importance of Suhakam meant that the government should make early appointments or allow a “caretaker” role for retiring commissioners to ensure continuity.
“It is crucial to make early appointments before a team finishes their term of service. This is important to handle issues that [are] brought to Suhakam, for example, the case of the teenager being shot dead,” he added.
In the last round of appointments under sub-section 5 (1) Suhakam Act 1999, the government appointed Tan Sri Abu Talib Othman as chairman; Tan Sri Simon Sipaun; Dr Chiam Heng Keng; Dr Mohammad Hirman Ritom; Tan Sri Asiah Abu Samah; Datuk Dr Raj Abdul Karim; Datuk Dr Abdul Monir Yaacob; Datuk N. Siva Subramaniam; Datuk Choo Siew Kioh; Tunku Datuk Nazihah Tunku Mohamed Rus; Prof Emeritus Dr Khoo Kay Kim; Datin Paduka Zaitoon Othman; Datuk Dr Denison Jayasooria; Datuk Dr Michael Yeoh; Datuk Khalid Ibrahim; and Datuk Muhammad Shafee.
Abu Talib has been chairman since 2002.
The Suhakam Act 1999 allows for the commission to have not more than 20 members and states under subsection 5 (3) that “Members of the Commission shall be appointed from amongst prominent personalities including those from various religious and racial backgrounds”.