Saturday, February 12, 2005

The Malaysian Way Of Death

The character of Malaysian politics has been the subject of a rather moribund debate for some time now. Some analysts, mostly liberal economists, simply turn a blind eye to the deep flaws in the country's political system, preferring instead to concentrate on the superficial indicators of developmental "success". In doing so, they present the virtues of "order" and "stability" (and the concomitant curtailment of political rights) as the price worth paying for the so-called economic miracle. Others, mostly liberal political scientists, offer mild criticisms of a system that is usually described as "semi-authoritarian", "semi-democratic" or "quasi-democratic" lacking, as they see it, a mature system of government and democratic institutions, an independent judiciary, and an unfettered role for the media. The obvious prescription here is that political elites should do more to craft these institutional forms and thus embed the requirements for liberal democracy.

What both these approaches fail to see are the coercions - the very real brutality - that lie at the heart of the Malaysian state apparatus. It is true that the electoral system is strongly skewed in favour of the ruling parties; it is true that independent media outlets hardly exist; it is true that there is no real separation of political powers. But it is equally true that there is an unremitting harshness in the state apparatus that gets only passing commentary in mainstream analysis. I have already posted a great deal on the treatment of migrant workers which seems to exemplify some of this harshness.

Last week two official parliamentary answers offered a new insight into just how bad things are. They are reported by Malaysiakini (one of the few independent political voices) here and here (subscription required). In a written reply to the parliamentary opposition leader, the prime minister, Abdullah Badawi, admitted that there had been more the 1,700 deaths in prison and police custody in the past 15 years. The figures for the past three years have been the worst on record. Among the major causes of death have been a range of preventible illnesses; in addition, a large number of detainees have died from "unspecified" illnesses and suicides. The figures reflect a callous disregard for the well-being of detainees - "shocking" in the words of the opposition - and say a great deal about the lack of accountability and integrity in the prison and police services.

The second official parliamentary answer focused on the vexed question of judicial executions. The government has executed 358 people by hanging in the past 24 years. Such figures have rarely been published and media attempts to establish the number in recent years have been consistently rebuffed. But now we know the scale of the issue. Most disturbing of all are the twelve executions under the provisions of the notorious Internal Security Act (ISA) - a hangover of British anti-communist policy - all in the period between 1984 and 1993 when the former prime minister, Mahathir Mohamad, was establishing his iron grip over the political system.

Compared to neighbouring countries the figures for deaths in detention and state executions might appear "not too bad". But they demonstrate the reality of a hegemonic political system that relies equally on consent and coercion. There are camapigns under way to repeal the ISA and the beginnings of a debate about ending the death penalty. They deserve your support.


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