#Opinion* Harmony Bills a new, democratic way to lawmaking?

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Last Updated: 11:05am, Jun 26, 2014

THE draft National Harmony Bills have received positive feedback from various stakeholders involved in the consultation process on the bills thus far. The consultation process is conducted by the Law and Policy Committee of the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC), which is responsible for preparing the bills. The bills are among the proposals in the NUCC's holistic report which is expected to be submitted to the Prime Minister in September this year. The Law and Policy Committee is chaired by Datuk Dr Mujahid Yusof Rawa (MP for Parit Buntar). Lim Chee Wee (immediate past President of Malaysian Bar Council) is Deputy Chairman and I am honoured to be one of its members. The positive feedback received is on the substantive aspects of the bills. The bills' aim is very clear and is a part of the NUCC's initiative to strengthen unity, national integration, equality and prevent unfair discrimination. The Harmony Bills have three specific objectives which are stated in each of the bills. Criminalising hate speech Firstly, to make religious and racial hate speech a crime. This is stated in the Racial and Religious Hate Crimes Bill. The bill criminalises incitement against Rulers and incitement based on racial and religious hatred. Secondly, to ensure equality and to prevent unfair discrimination based on grounds of religion, race, descent, place of birth, gender or disability. This is stated in the National Harmony and Reconciliation Bill. This second bill is consistent with Article 8 of the Federal Constitution and aims to provide procedures for dealing with unfair discrimination as well as raising public awareness to eliminate and reduce unfair discrimination. And thirdly, to provide a private law remedy for unfair discrimination through the establishment of a National Harmony and Reconciliation Commission. This is stated in the National Harmony and Reconciliation Commission Bill. The bills take into consideration fundamental contexts, for example, the Federal Constitution, Rukunegara, social contract, history and culture; freedom of speech and expression; and the New Realities of today, eg., ICT/social media, new social consciousness/movements, third phase of democracy, educated citizens, urbanisation and the middle class. Criticisms addressed in consultation process Even though there is some criticism of the bills, these mostly do not touch on the substance of the bills. For example, they questioned issues on context and procedures, which are in actual fact already embedded in the content and consultation process of the bills. These criticisms will be answered if they were to read the bills. The bills are available on the NUCC website: www.nucc.my The Racial and Religious Hate Crimes Bill is also meant to replace the Sedition Act 1948. Many sectors have, for a long time, called for the act to be repealed. The act was formulated by the British against the communists. But beyond that, the act is loaded with a lot of baggage. It does not require "intention" and "harm" to be proven, hence making the threshold (to be charged and found guilty) very low. There is also the concern of selective prosecution. So, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Mohd Najib Tun Abdul Razak's announcement to repeal the Sedition Act, made in 2012, is timely. But without the Sedition Act, existing laws are insufficient. Though there are provisions in the Penal Code, these only cover offences on the grounds of religion, while we also need to address the grounds of race, etc. Hence the need for a new law to clearly address harmony issues.        Consultations will continue To date, the consultation process has involved various stakeholders, such as university students, civil society organisations (CSO), Members of Parliament and political parties. The Law and Policy Committee will continue engaging other stakeholders, including the public, other CSOs, MPs and political parties. The Committee is also prepared to attend discussions held by other organisations, including the critics. The final draft of the bills will, as is practised, be prepared by the Attorney General's Office, acting in accordance with the decision of the Cabinet. The Law and Policy Committee is also proposing that a Parliamentary Select Committee be established and that the final drafts be discussed at the Select Committee before being tabled at the Dewan Rakyat. If approved by Parliament, this is the first time a law is passed after such an intense consultation process, paving a new way - a more democratic way that is participative and deliberative, of law-making in the country. The proposed bills, like any law, will not be a magic wand. Besides that, it must be administered on the principle of "rule of law", not "rule by law". It must also be read and implemented together with the other NUCC proposals, and other complementary initiatives. Saifuddin Abdullah is CEO of Global Movement of Moderates and former Deputy Minister of Higher Education. He is active on twitter (@saifuddinabd).

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