Malaysians showed their indifference whether it was towards desperate Rohingya refugees, trafficked people in mass graves and Orang Asli in public institutions, laments Kua Kia Soong.
2015 will be remembered as the year cold Malaysian values were exposed to the world. It was the year the hot air of the ‘Eastern values’ rhetoric was chilled by the cold-hearted response of Malaysian leaders to these humanitarian disasters, namely:
- Thousands of Rohingya refugees adrift at sea off Malaysia; hundreds of mass graves of trafficked persons uncovered near the Thai border;
- Tens of pregnant Orang Asli women at the transit centre for expectant mothers in Kuala Bertis, Gua Musang;
- Seven Orang Asli children lost in the forest at Gua Musang;
- One Malaysian beheaded in Sabah.
Eastern values versus Western values
In the 1990s, several prominent East Asian leaders argued that human rights are culturally relative. At the forefront of the so-called ‘Asian values’ debate was Dr Mahathir Mohamad, the then prime minister of Malaysia, and the former prime minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew. They argued that Asians tend to value community while Westerners value the individual. And whereas Asians appreciate order and harmony, Westerners appreciate personal freedom.
But which values – Eastern or Western – are more humanitarian? Dr Mahathir distinguished himself in 1979 when he was deputy prime minister by threatening to shoot on sight any Vietnamese boat people attempting to land on Malaysian soil. After the international uproar, he maintained that he had actually said he would “shoo them on sight…” Anyway, he had demonstrated an aspect of his rendition of ‘Asian values’.
In 2015, Malaysian political leaders demonstrated that Mahathir’s 1979 faux pas was not exceptional.
Rohingya refugees at sea refused landing rights
The tragedy of Rohingya refugees being stranded in the Andaman Sea in 2015 was bad enough, but the refusal of Malaysia and other regional authorities to take them in was a human rights abomination of major proportions.
The number stranded aboard rickety ships was estimated to be in the thousands. Despite a plea from UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon, urging South East Asian leaders to uphold “international law” and “the obligation of rescue at sea”, Malaysia refused to accept these boat people who were suffering from rapidly dwindling provisions.
The Malaysian government did not engage in any search and rescue efforts to provide desperately needed aid at sea nor did they allow migrants to land on offshore islands for such aid. The Malaysian Deputy Home Minister, Wan Junaidi Jaafar, said the surge of refugees from Myanmar and Bangladesh seeking asylum in Malaysia was unwelcome and his government would turn back any illegal arrivals.
The attitude of the Penang state government through its deputy chief minister to the plight of the Rohingya boat people was just as disappointing. He criticised the federal government’s move to house the Rohingya boat people in Penang as another politically motivated ‘Project IC’.
As a former radical upwardly mobile person (FRUMP), the Pakatan Rakyat leader should have shown more humanitarian concern for the welfare of the boat people and could have used Penang state government resources to provide food and drink to these desperate people.
Malaysia’s response was in sharp contrast to the attitude of the European countries such as Germany and the Italians on the island of Lampedusa who have compassionately opened their hearts and their homes in an unprecedented humanitarian effort to accept the thousands of refugees fleeing the war in Syria.
Since when has it become acceptable for supposed democrats to treat the Rohingya as if they were political pawns rather than human beings entitled to human rights?
Mass graves of trafficked persons uncovered
The discovery of multiple mass graves (139) by the Malaysian police and the uncovering of 28 suspected human trafficking camps located about 500 metres from the country’s northern border did not lead to any outcry over such a horrendous crime. The dense jungles of southern Thailand and northern Malaysia have been a major route for human traffickers bringing Rohingyas from Burma.
The response of the government has bordered on the macabre. Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Shahidan Kassim suggested turning the human trafficking camps into a tourist attraction. Such a suggestion merely illustrated the flippancy and lack of respect for the hundreds of refugees and migrants who had been tortured, killed and buried in the mass graves.
From press reports, local people had been aware of atrocities in the border area for years, and it is incumbent on the government to explain why the police and security forces have been unable to apprehend these human traffickers all these years when they were able to deal with the greater challenge of the insurgency during the Emergency of 1948-60. Is there a serious inquiry over this major scandal? Can we expect some cogent answers in 2016?
Shocking state of transit home for expectant Orang Asli mothers
In November 2015, the Orang Asli community in Malaysia (the ‘Original People’ of this country) expressed shock at the condition of a transit home for expectant mothers in Kuala Bertis, Gua Musang. They complained that the government centre was filthy, neglected and unhygienic, infested with flies and pests, and the expectant mothers were expected to sleep on wooden planks at the centre.
A team from The Star was shocked to see the dilapidated condition of the centre which they said was like “a huge junkyard”. They also saw at least 20 people, including newborns as well as children, sleeping on bare floors with flies all over their bodies. There was rubbish everywhere and the toilets stank.
The transit home is meant to accommodate and allow expectant mothers or those needing medical treatment to get prompt healthcare just before and after childbirth. Some claim that there is often no nurse to attend to them.
Official response to seven Orang Asli children lost in the forest
The seven Orang Asli children who went missing in the jungles of Gua Musang in August 2015 were supposed to be in the care of their teachers and boarding school warden.
Their parents blamed carelessness and neglect by the authorities which resulted in their disappearance. Apparently, there were barely any teachers around when the Sekolah Kebangsaan Tolok students left the compound of their dormitory through a broken fence.
It took the school two days before lodging a report over the missing children and the parents only found out that their children were missing from a security guard and fellow villagers.
From the press reports:
“Teachers only teach a full day’s lesson three days a week. On Thursday and Monday, they’re only there half the day, weekends only two teachers are around. They don’t care at all…The back fence has always been broken. The condition there is terrible; it’s always been that way.”
Parents and relatives of the seven missing children spoke of a lack of communication from the school, its dilapidated conditions and attempts by teachers to shift the blame for the children’s’ disappearance to the parents.
The Orang Asli community claimed that teachers often behaved abusively towards their children with name-calling and caning allegedly being common practice. They allege that such abuse was a “racial issue” and that the students were mistreated because they were Orang Asli.
Lack of outcry over the beheading of a Malaysian by Abu Sayyaf
On 17 November 2015, Sarawakian Bernard Then, who had been held hostage by the Abu Sayyaf terror group, was beheaded by the gunmen at about 4pm in the island of Jolo. He was the first Malaysian hostage to be beheaded by Abu Sayyaf.
Although Prime Minister Najib Razak made a comment in his Facebook page that, “I, the government, and all Malaysians are shocked and sickened by the murder of our countryman Bernard Then, and we condemn it in its strongest terms”, Then’s beheading did not lead to the public outcry we have witnessed in the West, such as when the American journalist James Foley was beheaded by the Islamic State recently.
Another example was when an Algerian jihadist group linked to IS militants beheaded French tourist Herve Gourdel in September 2014, hundreds of Muslims gathered in the Grand Mosque of Paris to show solidarity against the beheading. The protest was led by the leader of the French Council of the Muslim Faith, Dalil Boubakeur, and was joined by thousands of other Muslims around the country.
A Happy New Year for the Rohingya and Orang Asli?
Thus in 2015, Malaysians showed their indifference whether it was towards thousands of desperate Rohingya refugees, hundreds of trafficked people in mass graves, tens of Orang Asli in public institutions or a single Malaysian who had been beheaded by Abu Sayyaf terrorists.
There was an appallingly insufficient humanitarian response towards fellow human beings in need, no groundswell of protests over such violations of human rights and the lack of swift action by the authorities concerned.
Can we hope that with a New Year, we Malaysians will rediscover our once warm hearts and humanitarian spirit to strenuously uphold human rights in 2016? Is 2016 not high time to accord the Orang Asli the rights they are entitled to as indigenous peoples of this land and for long overdue infrastructural and institutional support in this their country?
After such a year of inhumanity, racism and irrationality in 2015, Tagore’s aspirations written in 1910 still remain instructive for Malaysians today:
Let my country awake
Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high
Where knowledge is free
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments
By narrow domestic walls
Where words come out from the depth of truth
Where tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way
Into the dreary desert sand of dead habit
Where the mind is led forward by thee
Into ever-widening thought and action
Into that heaven of freedom, my Father,
Let my country awake.”
– Rabindranath Tagore, 1910
Dr Kua Kia Soong is the advisor of human rights group Suaram.