Audiences got a different glimpse of democracy and were shown a few tools of upgrading democracy, at a public lecture on ‘Upgrading Democracy: Soft Laws, Good Laws and Human Rights’ at the WOU main campus today.
Veteran lawyer Roy Lee, who has practised public law, drafted legislation and consulted in numerous countries in Asia and Australasia, stated that soft laws, good laws and human rights are the three key features and upgrades in modern democracy, and that the best reference for countries is international standards.
Declaring that democratic governance is crucial to democracy, he defined it as a collection of robust mechanisms that keep the Executive honest, ensure the Executive does not abuse its powers, acts fairly, and works hard for the people. The four benchmarks of democratic governance are accountability, transparency, fairness and independence, he added.
He gave examples of democratic governance institutions like the written Constitution, judicial review, independent Courts, domestic human rights law, international human rights law, the Ombudsman, Freedom of Information legislation, public procurement laws and guidelines, a Human Rights Commission, free media and journalists, free social media, NGOs, interest groups, and Parliamentary oversight committees.
He stressed that certain civil and political rights such as freedom of expression, assembly and association are indispensable in a democratic society. He also spoke of countries without written Constitution like New Zealand and UK, which have learnt to use the Parliament properly to protect the rights of the people.
Regarding soft laws, Lee said soft law institutions do not rely on litigation or criminal law, but infuse democratic values like “accountability, transparency, fairness, human rights and rationality, into decision-making and actions by public officials”. He noted that soft laws – e.g. regulatory impact assessments, consultation, human rights norms, codes, policies, principles, other guidance, ombudsman independent Police Complaints Commission - are needed in a democracy,
He said soft law institutions help design standards for good laws in a democracy. He listed eight features for good laws: clear objectives and guiding principles; clear and objective criteria for exercise of significant powers; appropriate placement of powers; appointment, removals, accountability and independence of decision-makers; graduated sanctions; sufficient safeguards; sufficient transparency; and international standards and best practice.
Lee mentioned sufficient safeguards like court appeals, independent panel, and judicial reviews, and sufficient transparency for amendment revocation and concessions or agreements with utilities or monopoly providers. He also said that there are enough international standards and best practice to follow, even on judiciary, parliament, campaign and political finance, discrimination and equality.
He concluded, “Lots of soft laws upholding democratic governance are critical upgrades to democracy. There is no quick fix for Malaysia’s deficit of democratic governance. A whole package of reforms is needed.”
He suggested a review of key institutions and laws, parliaments, courts, prosecutions, police, Prime Minister’s office, and legislation restricting fundamental freedoms against international standards or best practice; establishing soft law institutions/mechanisms; and creating awareness starting from school about democracy and human rights,
During Q&A, he replied that the Constitution can be amended with two-thirds majority, and so the safeguards for democracy are strong soft laws for every structure and strata of society, and infusing democratic values in these institutions and the people.
About 40 people attended the event organised by the Penang Institute and WOU, including WOU Board of Governors Chairman Tan Sri Emeritus Prof Gajaraj Dhanarajan and Vice Chancellor Prof Dato’ Dr Ho Sinn Chye.