English, Speech

Welcoming Speech by Steven Sim at the Penang In Asia Lecture featuring Judge Navi Pillay on Affirmative Action and Human Rights


I visited South Africa as a young university student, more than a decade ago.

When I was there, one of my most fondest memories, and there were many, was my visit to Constitution Hill, the seat of the Constitutional Court of South Africa in Johannesburg.

The place was originally an old Fort prison, built way back in the late 19th century but gained notoriety for being the detention centre of the apartheid regime.

As I walked its corridors, I felt the weight of history on me.

In the main court chamber, as the judges sit, they are faced with the ugly, unpainted and weather-worn red bricks from the Fort prison. These awkward looking wall formed only half the chamber, the part directly opposite the judges, while the rest of the chambers have nice clean whitewashed wall.

This is so that when the judges preside and decide, they are constantly faced with the ever-present reminder of the old prison where Nelson Mandela and his honourable company were once detained because the law was oppressive.

When we move towards the remnants of the old Fort prison, partially maintained as yet another reminder of South Africa’s dark past, I encountered a quotation from the great Mandela himself. These words, I later discovered were taken from his memoir, and were penned at the juncture when he was first brought to the Fort to face what was known as the Treason Trial – where

leaders of the African National Congress were charged of, please do not laugh fellow Malaysians, attempting to overthrow the government to set up a Communist state.

These words as Nelson Mandela entered detention in 1956 is now literally writings on the wall for the former apartheid regime and for all oppressive regimes everywhere the world. Written across the beams at the entrance of the prison museum, the words of Mandela: “A nation should not be judged by how it treats its highest citizens but its lowest ones.”

This evening, Penang Institute is humbled and honoured to host a remarkable person from that dark past of South Africa, who like the heroes and heroines we are familiar with in those stories from there, shines forth like a light not only for her country but for the world through their long-suffering and long walk to freedom.

Encounter with Judge Navi Pillay

I first read about Judge Navi Pillay when I was asked to speak at the International Tamil Conference held here in Penang for two consecutive years in 2014 and 2015. Her work and subsequent reports by the UN Office for the Investigation on Sri Lanka shed light on the atrocity of the civil war there.

The Penang in Asia lecture has been delivered by Nobel laureates, as well as esteemed scholars and thinkers of our times. We are proud that Judge Pillay will be the latest accolade to this lecture series. Being personally acquainted with her work on Sri Lanka, I look forward indeed to Judge Pillay’s lecture this evening, confident that it will be delivered with the same profound vigor.

Affirmative action a difficult topic

Affirmative action is a difficult topic in Malaysia. We all know deep in our gut we must help the less fortunate, even the helpless, but how many of us also feel angered by the so-called affirmative action policy of the federal government which seems to profit cronys more than empower the powerless.

I realised the complexity surrounding such discourse in my own personal experience when we push for women quota in decision making positions.

Some felt it is condescending, I know many successful women, not least my colleagues, who are embarrassed by the mere mention of women quota. Some felt it is another sham, bypassing merits and talents to give preferential treatment sometimes to undeserving ones.

Some argue that women and men should be allowed to fight their way up, to prove themselves worthy of leadership positions rather than be given an unfair advantage through quota. Such argument, however, essentially puts the blame squarely on women for “not being up there”.

In the words of Simone De Beauvoir, this is “double dealing”, when we “require woman to play the game fairly while [denying] her the indispensable trump cards through distrust and hostility”.

Because the fact is, almost 40 years after CEDAW, 21 years after Beijing Platform for Action, almost 20 years after Malaysia established a full blown Women’s Ministry, all these aiming to empower women including in public life; women are still severely under-represented at all levels of decision making, from the village committees to local councils to state legislative assemblies to board rooms to Parliament.

And my god, to think that some of us still believe that it is solely the individual capacity of women which determines whether they make it to the top or not. This is not only naive but also is in denial of the data at hand. We have to recognise that the systematic and situational bias are the ultimate stumbling block – call it glass ceiling or sticky floor if you want – to gender equality in our society. Affirmative action in this case, is merely a recognition of this stark reality.

Discussion of affirmative action inevitably oscillate between the notions of fairness, justice and solidarity. These are no small concepts, hence the complexity of the issue.

Perhaps, the Mandela maxim applies, with a bit of adaptation: “A nation should not be judged by how it treats its strongest citizens but its weakest ones.”

I recognise that this indeed does not make the issue any easier – hence I shall not take up any more of our time so that we can hear from the esteemed Speaker and later the panel of discussants themselves.

I just want to end my speech by thanking Judge Navi Pillay for her willingness to be with us here in Penang and tomorrow with Penang Institute in KL. My gratitude to our old friend, Dato Judy Cheng-Hopkins for helping to create the connection with Judge Pillay. Thank you to Tan Sri Simon Sipaun, himself a respected elder of the Country, my esteemed colleagues and friends, Dr. Muhammad bin Abdul Khalid, Wan Saiful Wan Jan and Dr. Wong Chin Huat.

And finally, to the Chief Minister of Penang and Chairman of Penang Institute, YAB Lim Guan Eng for his support of this event. Mandela said, “In my country we go to prison first and then become President”, I think the Chief Minister, who has been to prison twice due to political persecution can identify with that.

Have a good evening everybody, and thank you for coming.

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