Sender : Matthew Van Huizen
“NO freeman shall be taken or imprisoned, or be disseised of his Freehold, or Liberties, or Free Customs, or be outlawed, or exiled, or any other wise destroyed; nor will WE not pass upon him, nor condemn him, but by lawful judgement of his Peers, or by the Law of the Land, WE will sell to no man, WE will not deny nor defer to any man, either Justice or Right…”
Yet, something is amiss. There is a sense of uncertainty in the air, a smell of discontent. Listen carefully and you could hear talk of rebellion and of treason on this blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England. Dangerous times indeed. The dogs of war have slipped lose, haughtiness abounds, and a constitutional crisis is in full swing. Ground zero of this idle chatter is none other than Medieval London’s super-highway, the River Thames, and her surrounding banks. Downstream in London, are the barons of the land, descendants of that band of brothers, from across the channel in Normandy, who fought alongside William at Hastings in 1066. Angry and baying for blood at being ridden roughshod, they make camp. Upstream, in the indomitable and impressive Windsor Castle, lives and reigns King John, that despotic monarch of Robin Hood fame.
Right in between the rancorous lot, rests a boggy meadow chosen by His Grace, the Archbishop of Canterbury for the holding of reconciliatory discussions. Unassuming to the untrained eye, nevertheless, this muddy field will ultimately be the grand stage of the greatest legal drama of Plantagenet England; Runnymede.
There, on that rich rain-soaked earth, a richer moment concealed. A moment that bore, shaped, made aware the primordial beginnings of personal liberty and for the first time in English legal history asserted that no one, not even the divinely anointed King was to be above the law. Held at sword point by the barons, and most assuredly fearing for his life, the gout riddled King John ordered his spigurnel, to put beeswax to tree sap and to impress upon a number of vellum parchments, His Majesty’s royal seal. With this, Magna Carta announced its arrival on the mise en scene of history. Melodramatic indeed.
Yet it was a failure. The barons, like their modern day counterparts, the spittle flecked metropolitan bohemians of the liberal left, pushed their reforms too far in the charter’s jots and tittles, with nonsense such as taxes being regulated by consent and not by the will of the King. Such radicalism was to be unheard of again for at least the next four centuries. As soon as the epic melodrama at Runnymede subsided, King John naturally sought to repeal the nuisance of the charter. His Majesty’s only option thereto was to beseech the highest authority available to medieval man, God’s own vicar on Earth, the Pope of Rome.
Unsurprisingly, His Holiness Innocent III took a dim view of the barons. The pope feared that the knavish barons were trying to usurp the divinely mandated order of God, King and only then country. Coupled with the need of the assistance of King John’s army for a crusade against those pesky Albigensians, the oxymoronically named pope quickly struck out the Great Charter. Needless to say the barons, taking umbrage at being outmaneuvered by a glorified Italian prelate in a tiara retaliated with disobedience. Thus began the First Baron’s war.
As the weeks turned into months, it looked like there would be no quick end to the war that is until, providence played it part. King John, having lived, for the standard of the middle ages, a relatively long life of a little more than four decades, died the following year to what some chroniclers say was dysentery, to others a surfeit of poisoned peaches. His successor, the child Henry III was more genteel and relied upon more knowledgeable regents. Acting in an almost proto-machiavellian way and realising the importance of the barons to Henry’s claim as King, his regents in 1217 swiftly redrew the Magna Carta without the offending clauses and sealed it again, effectively ending the civil war. When Henry reached the age of majority in 1225, the 1217 charter was again resealed and this time proved to be successful in arresting the grievances of the barons. They subsequently pledged fealty to their king and the rest as they say is history.
Some 800 years later, in the streets of Kuala Lumpur and Putrajaya, the alluring myth of Magna Carta has not lost its appeal. Nevertheless, one cannot help but feel that there is indeed a latter day insurrection of far greater importance for your average Malaysian. The people question the fairness and the integrity of the judiciary. The people are dismayed at hearing that another poor soul has lost his life while in police custody.
The people throw brickbats at the executive for failing to ensure their economic well-being. The people stand bewildered upon seeing the legislative at parliament acting no better than pre-school children during question time. The people are fed up with the shenanigans of both the ‘moderates’ and the religious fundamentalists in their respective political parties/NGO’s whose bickering about topics like the LGBT or hudud seem to be so distant form the reality of daily life, against the spirit of free speech and free thought, and will not put food on the table. As the modern day barons, we the plebiscite, have our Federal Constitution where our forbearers had their charter, enshrining into law irreplaceable legal rights such as habeas corpus and assiduously asserting that no man be above it. Yet, we are still filled with foreboarding on whether these truths, while clear on paper, ring true in our daily lives and in the governance of our country.
As we celebrate the 800th anniversary of its sealing in the coming days, may we remember the lessons of Magna Carta and the wonderful tradition and continuity of Common Law. May we never for one instance forget that our personal liberties are worth fighting for.
May we never therefore be influenced by such silly and serpentine jurisprudence like that of ages hence. May we never halt in our quest to ensure that honesty, impartiality and integrity truly exists in our governmental apparatchik and is not a mere slogan. May we never rest until due process is freely available to every Malaysian no matter their race or creed. May we never cease to fight for the rights of our fellow man. May we do justice though the heavens may fall.