Wednesday 2 July 2008

And now the bad news

Malaysia Human Rights Report (SUARAM, 237 pages, 2008)

One of the least-known restrictions that the mainstream media in Malaysia has to live with is a directive from the Home Ministry informing its columnists to quote from an Anne Murray song at least once a year.

So, I hereby grit my teeth and commit to the following:

Remember that great Anne Murray song where she hankers for “a little good news?” This hypothetical scenario would mean that: “Nobody robbed a liquor store in the lower part of town … Nobody fired a shot in anger, nobody had to die in vain…”

Well, there’s not much good news in the book for this week, I am afraid. The private consensual activities in liquor stores continue to be threatened; the police continue to fire at demonstrators; people continue to mysteriously die under custody. In fact, about the only joy to be found is in the name Lina Joy.

SUARAM is an organization founded in the wake of the Internal Security Act detentions of 1987. So it’s apposite that the ISA will have a special place in this book of outrages, right there on Chapter One.

There’s a chart displaying how many people have been detained, by year, under this obnoxious legislation. The good news (!) is that, since 1999, the figures have all been double-digit rather than triple-digit. (But of course I can hear you now say: “Any digit is too high a number!” True.) In fact, the highest numbers are for 1977 and 1978, with over a thousand each!

What on earth happened in the early days of the Hussein Onn administration to warrant such clampdowns? That’s an interesting matter that will be examined in other books. For now, the target is squarely the Prime Minister in 2007.

When Abdullah Ahmad Badawi took over, we awaited a wave of promised reforms, but these turned out to be not as rapid or regular as RapidKL. By ‘we’, I mean of course the liberal middle-classes – although, as this book points out, violations of human rights affect everyone, not just those of us with Aliran subscriptions.

For example, we all know about the ISA but how many know that there are currently thousands, including minors, detained under the Emergency Ordinance (EO)? These are for a range of alleged crimes including gangsterism; they remain allegations because they are not proven in court. The EO was originally drafted to tackle the 1969 riots but remains in place.

Speaking of ‘alleged’: this book just chokes with the word! The first two paragraphs of pg10 alone has four of them, and these are not long paragraphs. But then again, so much official data is classified as secret that it must be difficult to compile a report like this, so the plethora of ‘allegations’ serve as legal safe-checks. (But a thesaurus would not hurt).

2007 was blessed with many demonstrations so these provide ample photos for the layout. But of course, no demonstration is ever mentioned without immediate reference to police clampdowns. Actually, some photos show a more casual atmosphere than that. Demonstrations are primarily parties to celebrate democracy. Focusing immediately on the repression is almost as big a party-pooping act as over-zealous law enforcement.

But as the folks behind this book would say, their job is to document rather than provide colour. (For that, I recommend another book, Selak, a pictorial journey of the Bersih rally). Since it has multiple authors, the writing ranges from studiously bland to aggressively frigid. Sometimes you feel like you are sharing weak tea with your PhD supervisor; the next you are being heckled a person who seems to be wearing a hemp T-shirt even when they are not.

This is not the sort of book that you will want to curl up with in bed; your sleep will be plagued by nightmares. It should also not be read in the vicinity of dangerous objects, lest you start making attempts at your own life.

The Prime Minister had told us to “tell the truth even if it hurts.” Fast forward to a few days ago, and he says that a matter like ‘the social contract’ (which requires an ‘alleged’ for sure) cannot be discussed. This comment and its context are too late for inclusion in this book, but it will be in the next volume, I trust. The masochist in me cannot wait.

(Malay Mail, 2 July 2008).

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