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Deaths in custody - the hurt lock-up

S Thayaparan

Three years is not a long time. Here in Malaysia, it's just a year short of how long a regime can legitimately hold on to power before it needs to hold an election to get the endorsement of the voting public to remain in power.

Three years for ‘causing hurt' to A Kugan is what an officer of the Royal Malaysian Police (PDRM) received.

The truth will never be known in this case or in the hundreds or perhaps even thousands of others who have suddenly died in police custody, immigrant detention camps, police shootouts and jails over the years. We will never know the anguish of families of those killed or who have died in custody due to negligence.

We may share their sense of outrage but our outrage is diluted with our disdain for the systemic corruption that permeates every level of government.

Our outrage in some cases is also dependent on the guilt of the parties involved. We are indifferent to the fates of convicted inmates and the unsanitary (and most often criminally negligent) conditions they are housed in when it is the responsibility of the state to administer their welfare.

bangladesh foreign workers migrants 030108Our parasitic relationship with ‘foreigners', legal or otherwise, does not leave much room for empathy when it comes to their welfare while in custody for whatever reasons.

And before anyone accuses me of conflating various issues of our penal and enforcement systems, let me remind you that to this system, everyone who died is guilty or at least that is the presumption.

And like many Malaysians of a certain class (and perhaps because of my previous professions) my interactions with the PDRM has been positive for the most part - so-called illegal rallies excluded - but personal anecdote has no place in the face of the historical and current corruption of the system.

The Kugan case like most flashpoints when it comes to the PDRM or any of the enforcement branches of the state reveals simmering race and class tensions that are so often glossed over in this country.

This case in particular is perhaps the most cogent example of the state's disdain for the rights of its citizens.

Unconvincing cover-up

I have great admiration for the family of Kugan (as I do all other families in similar predicaments) who began the long journey of making it impossible for the state to bury its misdeeds only to reach the destination of an unconvincing cover-up.

Blame was assigned, a verdict recorded, a sentence meted out, but Kugan's family will never know the truth and neither will we.

Most people would be familiar with the gruesome post-mortem pictures of Kugan but to me what is even more sinister was the attempted cover up.

If his family didn't barge into the mortuary, the truth or the inkling of it would most probably been cremated or buried. The family could not even grieve in peace with mourners being arrested during the funeral.

The lies or misconduct of the first pathologist (which only warranted a reprimand) seemed like an apathetic shrug from the state, as if the murder of Kugan did not even warrant a sophisticated cover-up. And because of the propaganda for some, Kugan will always remain the ‘suspected luxury car thief" who died in custody.

petition to investigate kugan's death to istana 260909 kugan mother cryIt's times like these Malaysians are reminded of the necessity of opposition political parties and non-governmental organisations with N Surendran (whose work together with the other lawyers has been exemplary), Hindraf and many others (at various times) rightly turning this ‘criminal' case into a political one.

I would argue (and I am sure there will be many who disagree with me) that here in Malaysia because the system has been so compromised that any death in custody is an indictment against the ruling regime and its underlying ideology.

With election fever running high, those sympathetic to the aims of Pakatan Rakyat have been publically dreaming of the way how a Pakatan administration will right the wrongs of a system riddled with years of abuse.

This, of course, is cold comfort to the families of those slain by the system over the years. Indian, Orang Asli, Malay, Chinese, Indonesian, and Burmese, the list goes on.

The circumstances they died in may not have received the public scrutiny that Kugan's death did but the system over the years has many deaths to account for even though our current home minister can't even get the numbers (of the deaths in custody) right in the current administration.

Reform of the police and penal systems is such a gargantuan task that it is difficult to contemplate. No doubt a top-to-bottom approach is needed but the reality is that any reforms would be piece meal or at worse cosmetic.

Whatever changes made will fit time and circumstance, this to satiate the demands of rakyat disillusioned by a police force they perceive as corrupt or racist, there to do the bidding of their political masters and not to safeguard their interests.

Reforms need sustained effort

The reality is that any serious reform of the police force or the penal system will take a sustained effort by successive governments committed to the principle of reforming these most vital of public services. It will involve more than just reforming state organs but reforming mindsets, the public and the police personnel.

It would mean that the police force as an institution would be more than just any other convenient government body there to employ individuals who would not be employable in other jobs.

NONEOf course, the worry here is that these reforms are just part of the many other desperately needed reforms that this country requires. Cases like Kugan or Aminulrasyid Amzah or Teoh Beng Hock remind the Malaysian public of the contempt the current regime feels towards ordinary citizens.

On the other hand, the deaths and torture that occur in prisons and so-called illegal immigrant detention camps which is met with hardly a raised eyebrow by the Malaysian public is evidence of the apathy the public has towards these issues.

I'm skeptical of truth and reconciliation commissions for reasons which are beyond the scope of this piece, but I often wonder how a commission like this would play out in this context.

What would they reveal? Malaysians are prone to conspiracy theories and who could blame us? A muzzled press and the constant shadow plays that are a part of our lives are conducive to a particular mindset that sees tendrils of connections where none exist.

How would we as a nation react to the banal evil that confronts us in these proceedings? How would certain communities react when the truth of racial profiling as standard operating procedure is exposed to the harsh glare of the truth?

Would we be surprised at the level of cooperation between the various branches of the security services and where their loyalties lie or would we be cynical enough to expect such sinister alliances?

kuala terengganu by election nomination day 060109 police forceHow would we react when we discover that the perpetrators were young or ignorant or both who were just following orders (an invalid defence) or that psychological examination revealed that security personnel displayed levels of disorders that made them unsuitable to hold the positions they held?

How would we react to the blatant racism or indoctrination that their training exposed them to? And if there were cover-ups and convicted personnel were paid to take the fall, how much were they paid?
Is the life of a citizen more valuable than a foreigner? Is the life of a Malay man worth more than an Indian or Chinese?

Perhaps the only compensation that these families deserve is financial ones. It's a band-aid solution at best and if it means that BN pays by losing its mandate and by winning Pakatan pays in cash, so be it. Someone has to pay.

S THAYAPARAN is Commander (rtd) in the Royal Malaysian Navy.

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