Being Human: Let compassion light the way for criminal justice

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This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on June 13 - 19, 2016.


What is a suitable framework for a criminal justice system in a diverse society like Malaysia’s, where religious differences can inflame communal relations in dangerous ways?

This question has acquired a new relevance following the move by Pas president Datuk Seri Abdul Hadi Awang to table a Private Member's Bill to amend the Shariah Court (Criminal Jurisdiction) Act 1965 in the just-ended sitting of Parliament.

If the high level of angst that has greeted the move is any indication, there must be a more harmonious path towards social well-being than the approach that is currently being taken.

It is crucial to appreciate that the starting point for a wholesome examination of an appropriate legal system for our society does not lie in legal principles per se but in recognising the centrality of harmony as a common goal for all our communities.

With this in mind, the focus would be kept on ensuring that all citizens, irrespective of colour or creed, can be secure under the protection of a uniform set of universal laws rather than be doubtful about the boundaries of overlapping legal systems.

Giving harmony a central place in our society allows all communities to emphasise the common ground in our values, whether in the cultural realm, religious systems, ethical codes or other norms that define our separate identities.

Such a society would therefore expend its efforts on seeking out the common values that unite our different communities instead of taking the opposite approach of stressing the differences that separate one group from another.

Interestingly, in affirming the common principles of ethical conduct, justice and social well-being that unite our diverse cultures and faiths, we will validate our separate value systems rather than undermine them.

In investigating the notion of justice in the context of social harmony, attention falls on a number of humanistic principles that should be recognised in our search for a holistic legal framework.

These principles include the idea of rehabilitation of the wrongdoer, the promotion of a nurturing environment to mitigate aberrant behaviour, the exercise of mercy and the balancing of the welfare of all parties — the victim, perpetrator and anyone affected by a wrongful action.

Too often, an excessive emphasis is seen on punitive measures as an approach towards preventing crime. Such methods fail to address the psycho-social roots of criminal behaviour that need to be given attention in order to achieve optimal correctional outcomes.

Here, the success of motivational enhancement therapy in the treatment of substance abuse offers a clue to the alternatives that may be available in place of the negative reinforcement approach that underpins arguments in favour of punitive justice.

As the term implies, this approach focuses on improving an individual’s motivation to change harmful behaviours. First used at a US government institute for alcohol addiction in the 1990s, its success in the treatment of a range of self-destructive behaviours suggests that new approaches to the many intractable issues entwined in crime prevention, criminal justice and correctional programmes could potentially benefit society in transformative ways.

Indeed, a closer look at major religious teachings would reveal numerous practices that mirror the methodology of motivational enhancement therapy. In fact, practices like self-inquiry, redemptive acts, self-surrender, devotional practices and a host of other potent psychological techniques make up the toolkit of religious teachings.

All these methods and approaches lead the religious practitioner to deepen his or her appreciation of the preciousness of life, and so provide a powerful source of motivation for making the best use of one’s time on earth. This would include a deep desire to lead a moral life and be of good use to others. Presumably, that should also be sufficient to keep one out of a life of crime.

Another dimension of a religious life is the expansion of one’s sense of compassion to include firstly, all human beings, and ultimately, all of nature. For the sincere religious practitioner, then, a quality like social harmony would be as naturally a part of his sense of being as the idea that all creatures are God’s creation and therefore like one’s own.

Therefore, faced with a social environment where people of various persuasions live together as a community, the well-schooled religious person would seek to emphasise all that is harmonious among the many different faiths in his midst.

And where his opinions and beliefs stand in contrast to those of other faiths, as they inevitably must in a plural world, the universal sense of compassion that cradles his consciousness will guide him to embrace the differences of his fellow men as the gift of an almighty intelligence that passes understanding.

R B Bhattacharjee is associate editor at The Edge Malaysia