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Holding governments to account

Najib condemns Israel's human rights violations, but what about those that occur within Malaysia?

Updated on 7 June 2010 at 11.20am

IT was interesting to see our Malaysian government defending the rule of law and upholding human rights in the international arena recently. Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak and his colleagues condemned the recent Israeli commando-style raid of the flotilla of ships attempting to deliver aid to Gaza, resulting in the deaths of nine activists.

Najib said Malaysia, currently a non-permanent UN Security Council member, would move the council to discuss taking action against Israel for its attack. He also said Barisan Nasional (BN) would table a parliamentary motion to show the Malaysian people’s displeasure with the Israeli attack.

But even as I agree with some of our leader’s sentiments over the violence, niggling questions arise. And the foremost one is this: Why is our BN government so ready to rebuke Israel for its “excessive and inhumane treatment of activists,” yet remains relatively silent when excesses and acts of inhumanity are perpetrated within our own borders?

When will we hear our government take similar strong positions against deaths and brutality perpetrated by armed enforcers and government agencies within our own country? No doubt, the Israeli government must be called to account for the killings and violence it has inflicted. But when will our government make such stentorian calls for our public institutions to be responsible when human beings are mistreated in our own backyard?

Where is our prime minister's anger over the rape and sexual abuse of the Penan community? (pic of Penan people courtesy of Sofiyah Israa | Flickr)

Will our prime minister call for a parliamentary motion, for example, to demonstrate the Malaysian people’s displeasure at deaths in police custody? Or our anger at the rape and sexual abuse of Penan women and children?

While keeping up international pressure on Israel to account for its actions, the government may also want to examine the horror stories of some of the visitors to our own shores. Take these few examples:

Detention horrors

Refugees and undocumented migrants have a notoriously difficult time in Malaysia. Malaysia has not signed the UN Convention on the Status of Refugees and there is no official recognition of refugee status. Refugees and migrants are constantly at risk of being stopped by police or volunteer corps (Rela). Those found with inadequate documentation are detained in detention centres and eventually deported.

The Home Ministry informed Parliament there were 70 deaths in detention centres from 2006 to 2009. Human rights non-governmental organisation (NGO) Suaram says this figure might not take into account migrant deaths in medical centres while in Immigration Department custody. A 2007-2008 Malaysian Human Rights Commission (Suhakam) report found evidence of overcrowding, lack of bedding, little access to medical care, and the presence of young children and babies in immigration detention centres.

Even documented migrant workers don’t have it easy. A 2010 Amnesty International (AI) report entitled Trapped: The exploitation of migrant workers in Malaysia says prospective migrant workers are routinely deceived on their wages and conditions of employment. It says many are mistreated from the moment they arrive in Malaysia.

Irene Fernandez

A 46-year old Nepali farm worker told AI he sat on the floor at Kuala Lumpur International Airport for three days while waiting for his agent, with no food or money to buy anything to eat. Azhaar, a 28-year old Bangladeshi worker, said his agent brought him to a house in Kuala Lumpur where 50 of them were kept. He said they were only given a plain bun once in the morning and once in the evening, before being sold to various employers.

Many workers found themselves working in inhumane conditions with little or no pay while being deprived of their passports by their agents or employers.

Far from acknowledging or condemning the mistreatment of foreigners on our shores, our Malaysian government in fact charged activist Irene Fernandez with publishing false news when she published details of detainees’ mistreatment. Fernandez was found guilty and sentenced to a year’s imprisonment; however her case was eventually dropped by the government.

The Malaysian government has also been dragging its feet on implementing better working conditions for domestic helpers.


Malaysia also has a bad track record in combating human trafficking. There are countless tales of women being promised restaurant jobs in Malaysia, only to be sold and forced to become sex workers upon arrival. While volunteering at women and migrant rights NGO Tenaganita, I heard rescued women tell of being forced to see six to seven customers each day and kept under close guard to prevent them from escaping.

Anifah Aman (left) downplayed the report that Malaysia does not comply to minimum standards for eliminating human trafficking (public domain | Flickr)

(Updated) Instead of responding in outrage that our country is party to such inhumane acts, our government merely said it would set up a team to “study” a US Trafficking in Persons Report, which is heavily critical of Malaysia.

Foreign minister Datuk Anifah Aman downplayed the report’s findings, saying it had not taken into account Malaysia’s “seriousness in tackling the issue.”

Deaths and shootings

The deaths in police custody and fatal police shootings bear repeating, given that there seems to be no discernible sign that anything is changing. Media and NGO reports show there were 39 fatal police shootings in 2009 and 44 the year before.

Official figures also state there were 159 deaths in police custody between 1990 and 2004. Out of 80 such deaths from 2000 to 2004, only six were subject to an inquest.

These figures don’t take into account those injured by police, but survived. Norizan Salleh, for example, says she was shot five times and then kicked and stepped on by police while on her way home in a friend’s car, but survived. Suhakam inquiries have also found the police guilty of brutality when trying to disperse peaceful assemblies.

IGP Musa Hassan threatened to pull police off the streets when the force was criticised (© Wan Leonard | Flickr)

Suhakam has made several recommendations to the government, chiefly to abolish the need for a permit for peaceful gatherings but there has been no significant indication that these suggestions are being seriously considered.

Government condemnation towards these matters has been lukewarm at best, cavalier at worst. Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Musa Hassan even threatened to pull police off the streets in response to the barrage of criticism the police faced after 15-year old Aminulrasyid Amzah was shot dead.

Close to home

There are a whole host of international covenants Malaysia has yet to sign up to — on civil and political rights; economic, cultural and social rights; torture; discrimination; the list goes on.

So yes, it is noble of our government to point out Israel’s wrongdoings and set it straight. But perhaps these condemnations might be more credible if the government was just as indignant about wrongful acts done in our own backyard. The Nut Graph

Ding Jo-Ann is against the killing and inhumane treatment of unarmed civilians in any country.

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7 Responses to “Holding governments to account”

  1. born2reign says:

    Recently a restaurant manager told me of the plight of his Myanmar restaurant worker who has a legal work permit. He was arrested by the Malaysian cops who tore up his work permit and extorted money from him. His employer and agent had to spend considerable time and more “on-the-spot-fines” to get him released. Now this Myanmar worker is so traumatised.

    And his employer, who is from a neighbouring country, said that he won’t be opening more outlets in Malaysia.

  2. Paul for Democrcy says:

    I believe that the armed forces and the Police should be renamed “Polis diUmno” as the killings of late are definitely not in the interest of the rakyat jelata. Especially of the late Teoh Beng Hock!

  3. jas says:

    Thank you for this article. I feel the same way. I don’t see any protests over the abject poverty in the interiors of Sabah and Sarawak. Here we are talking about aiding others, when a hardcore poor mum I personally know was turned away last week by the Welfare Department when she asked for strips to check her son’s blood sugar level. It has to be done daily, and the strips are expensive. I am sad for this country 🙁

  4. crap says:

    Our government needs to have at least nine killings in one day in order for them to be scrutinized by the world at large. Having one killing in nine months just can’t challenge Israel actions…

  5. matdene says:

    How to hold the government to account when the government is basically [a reflection] of ourselves! We hate and are scared of Bangladeshi, Indonesian and Burmese workers. We pay bribes to the police when the sensible thing is to pay up the traffic summons. When we pay RM800 for our maids, we expect them to do everything as we ask [forgetting] that they are people as well. I hope things change for the better in the future.

    To jas, I feel sad too, but I’ve learnt that even the wealthiest of countries (like the UK which provides free healthcare) refuses free medical treatment to some of their citizens [for cost reasons], what more us with less dough?

  6. Lisa says:

    In my opinion, the government felt obliged to express their opinion on the Israel-Gaza issue for the sake of brotherhood (in Islam) and human-kind. Moreover, there were Malaysians involved directly, and they would be condemned by lots of others (Malay [Malaysians], especially) if they just stood there and did nothing.

    Everybody has an opinion about everything and while I respect yours, how do you know that the government is doing nothing on the other matters? Just because it is not publicised by the media and there are no open statements does not mean things are left unresolved or there is no action at all to deal with other local issues.

    It is easy for us to scrutinize the government when they are the ones who are doing their best to bring balance and order to the country. I think they should be applauded as well for their hard work and we should as well play our role to build the country together. Malaysia [is] looked up by others and idolised by many.

    And being a democratic nation, one will have to comply with a government that has been chosen by the majority. While you don’t agree with some of the methods or decisions made, many others do. As long as nobody is harmed and they are for the better, I think we should support the government and give them some credit.

    • Ding Jo-Ann says:


      The issue here is not whether our government should have responded to the Israeli attacks. I have made quite clear that it was right of them to do so. The issue however is whether they respond with just as much indignation when similar excessive and inhumane acts are perpetrated within our own borders.

      Yes, a democratic nation means that we respect the people’s choice in putting the government of the day into power. However, this does not mean that we are thereafter uncritical and give the government a free hand to do as they see fit. There is still a need for public accountability and this can only happen when we continue to scrutinise government actions and call out any perceived inconsistencies.

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