DEC 16 — Speaking out for peace, justice and liberty can be a dangerous thing. Just speaking out against oppression of the authorities can mean jail, banishment or even death but this has not discouraged many individuals from doing so.
In 1948, on December 10, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted and proclaimed the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to promote the universal respect for and observance of human rights and fundamental freedoms. There are now 192 member states in the United Nations. All member states have to comply with the declaration but many countries continue to violate it.
The Nobel Peace award this December is a reminder of the importance of the 62-year-old document on human rights. This year it was awarded to Liu Xiaobo from China but he was not able to receive the honour personally.
He is serving a 12-year prison sentence in a Chinese prison. His crime is freedom of expression. He spoke out for a more open and democratic form of government for the Chinese people. China, of course, is an economic giant today but there are many voices of dissent there.
Last Saturday, December 11, for the third consecutive year, The Annexe Gallery in Kuala Lumpur had an awards ceremony for the Annexe Heroes Freedom of Expression Awards 2010.
This is also another commemoration of the existence of the Human Rights declaration. It was a modest event compared to the internationally renowned Nobel award ceremony. But it was just as significant.
The five Malaysian champions of freedom of expression this year are Azmi Sharom, Edmund Bon, Fahmi Reza, Farish Noor and Shelah. All of them were nominated online by members of The Annexe Gallery Facebook group.
These five and their families would be at risk if they were living in China or even just south of the Causeway. Nevertheless, these five vigilant voices are the people’s choice and they deserve wider recognition for doing their citizen’s duty.
According to Pang Khee Teik, from The Annexe Gallery, law lecturer Azmi Sharom was nominated “for speaking out regularly through his columns and talks regarding issues about students’ rights, constitutional rights and judicial reform, boldly criticising even the very institutions he is part of.”
Azmi has “inspired many of his students and readers to constantly engage with the complexity of being a Malaysian.”
Lawyer Edmund Bon was selected for his role in the MyConstitution campaign which seeks to teach a wide swathe of Malaysians about the Constitution.
Using creative formats from user-friendly guides to blogs, the Bar Council’s Constitutional Law Committee, chaired by Bon, also responds to issues regarding abuse, misinterpretation or disregard of the constitutions and, where necessary, make recommendations for constitutional reform.
Fahmi Reza is an activist, artist and a filmmaker who is well-known for his work researching, and presenting the history of the students’ movement in Malaysia.
Also an agitprop artist, Fahmi uses graffiti, visual art and film to challenge the authority’s censure and proscription of our rights.
Then there is Dr Farish Noor who is a historian, lecturer and writer who is already popular “for giving Malaysians a people’s version of history, helping us see that history is not set in stone and does not just represent merely the symbols and stories of the elites.”
Pang added that through his lectures and books, Farish empowers Malaysians “to constantly negotiate with their personal, communal as well as regional histories, to realise that history belongs to everyone.”
Finally, there is drag queen Shelah who is much admired for “getting the public to celebrate individuals who are different, fabulous and just trying to live their lives.”
The alter ego of theatre actor Edwin Sumun, she “‘seeks to empower us to celebrate our lives, loves, hurts, hopes and inner divas.”
This event also celebrated how Malaysians are engaging in local politics, as a duty and a right, through social media.
At the end of the day, all we want is a country where everyone — any race, sex, religion and age — can enjoy peace, justice and freedom of expression. Is this too much to ask?
* The views expressed here are the personal opinion of the columnist.