Ambassador Marc Barety, my friends and family.Je ne me sens pas seulement profondément honorée, mais émue de recevoir la Legion d’Honneur du Président Francais. Merci, monsieur l’Ambassadeur, d’avoir accomplit les formalités, je tiens à vous exprimer ma gratitude. Friends, any honour given to me for my work in human rights is an honour that belongs to civil society. It is all the more significant coming from France, the spiritual home of “Les Droits de l'homme” or “Rights of Man”, a clarion call to human rights in the 18th Century written by Thomas Paine from England who had exiled himself to France.
Thomas Paine then became one of the foremost thinkers in the movement for American independence.Ambassador, you mentioned my work with the Orang Asli Community. In my view they are one of the most marginalised and oppressed communities in this country. What is tragic is that despite our decades of association with indigenous Malaysians, it appears to me that today, we have never been so far apart. Much of that arises out of a failure to understand their life and culture and the one thing that defines them – their ancestral lands or tanah adat.
They have said it time and again, yet we are not listening. The tanah adat of the Orang Asal embodies all that they value, their culture, spirit, way of life, ancestry, history, their source of sustenance, medicine and solace. It is in short, all that is their way of life. Take that away and you take away all that they know and all that they are. I can say it no better than the way they say it in the Semai dialect: “Walla Tik Walla Adat, Walla Adat Walla Sinui Senoi”, which means, “No land no culture and heritage, no culture and heritage no life and it is the end of our world”.
Having said that, we are encouraged to see a sense of empowerment of the Orang Asal emerging. We can see them articulating their own cause more and more. They are not alone, for civil society will stand by them in their arduous journey to reclaim what is rightfully theirs.May I now express my admiration for civil society who has been working selflessly and tirelessly for many, many years, improving the lives of the marginalised and oppressed and advocating human rights issues long before it became fashionable to do so.
I would like to make special mention of the Malaysian Bar, a statutory body, which has always stayed true to their charter of speaking up without fear or favour in the public interest even though they were many a time, a lone voice. I salute them all.So what drives civil society? It is this. It is the faith that Malaysians have the talent and resources to be the very best. It is the belief that Malaysians deserve better. Putting it another way, it is the feeling that Malaysians don’t deserve flawed institutions, corruption, wastage and oppression.
We don’t deserve people who recklessly fan the fires of discord, who are greedy and dishonest, and who wield power without wisdom.So what should we, as the rakyat strive for? We have to take a long hard look at ourselves and our leaders and potential leaders. We must insist on changing our language and elevating our discourse from personal attacks to policy, from racism to inclusiveness, from pettiness to substance and from power and arrogance to statesmanship.And if our leaders show little inclination to do this, then we the rakyat must lead the way.
We must speak the language of reason and moderation. We must be robust in our views and yet respectful. We must not descend to baseness and if others do, we must refuse to entertain it. We must articulate our ideas sincerely and honestly based on facts. We must be prepared to admit our mistakes. We must insist that there is dignity in the way are governed. Together, we can build a society based on the universal ideals and values of truth, justice, goodness, integrity, fair play and transparency. We must then ensure we have leaders who share this vision with us.
I am aware that many criticisms are levelled, justifiably, at the failure of our institutions. But I also know that there are many good people in these institutions who know what is right and are uncomfortable with wrongdoing. To these good people, we say, now is the time for you to stand with the rakyat who are striving to uphold the rule of law and democracy in this country. If you do the right thing the rakyat will support you. We urge you to be on the right side of history, for history will ultimately judge us all.
Finally, I would like to leave you to think about the following powerful words of Voltaire which, although spoken in a different context and have varied interpretations, are so relevant here. He said, “L’injustice à la fin produit l’indépendance” (Voltaire) which translates to: “Injustice in the end produces independence”.
Mesdames et Messieurs, merci et bonsoir.
Dato’ Ambiga Sreenevasan23 September 2011