by Lim Teck Ghee
It is with a mixture of sadness and indignation that this piece is written for the occasion of Teoh Beng Hock’s death anniversary on 16 July.
Fourteen years have passed since that fateful day when a young, promising life was snuffed out for a reason or purpose that a majority of the people in Malaysia cannot comprehend or agree with.
This makes it more than 5,000 days with the authorities being unable or unwilling to resolve a case which, in law-abiding and democratic nations, will require a much shorter time to ascertain the unexplained death.
Held in custody by authorities whose role is to uphold the law at all times – even of those accused of wrongdoing or for alleged crimes and transgressions of the law – Teoh’s case reminds us of the dark forces and deep state that have imposed themselves with relative impunity in the nation’s life.
No more than a few weeks or months would have been required for any responsible government to resolve the case. And, when confronted with the distinct possibility of violent death or murder with race and politics in the mix, the need for an expedited, fully transparent and independent investigation was more urgent and necessary.
An open and unhampered response by the government did not happen. It would have helped to assure that impartial and impersonal justice was done and to give confidence that Malaysia is not a failing or failed state with officials in dysfunctional agencies permitted to engage in wrongful and illegal conduct.
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What did the nation and the rest of the world see and learn in Teoh’s case? We saw foot-dragging, a lack of accountability and transparency, and an absence of professionalism among key stake players.
We saw even worse. We saw questions raised by the public, professionals and NGOs go unanswered or simply ignored. We saw suspicions of foul play and allegations of an official cover-up disregarded even by the royal commission of inquiry, which was belatedly convened with limited terms of reference to inquire into Teoh’s death.
His case is not the first unexplained death of Malaysians and non-Malaysians held in custody by the authorities.
Human rights watchdog Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram) in its report for 2022 revealed that a total of 21 deaths in police custody were recorded by the criminal investigation unit on deaths in custody for that year alone.
An earlier report noted 257 deaths in police custody between 2002 and 2016, according to official statistics provided by the Ministry of Home Affairs in a parliamentary reply on 28 March 2017.
Based on Suaram’s data, it has been estimated that only 62 of these cases were reported in the media and to rights group. This means that only about one in four cases of deaths in police custody becomes public knowledge, while the rest go unnoticed.
Since then we have seen similar incidents happening even without the cover of official custody with the ‘mysterious’ and unresolved, most likely, enforced ‘disappearance’ cases of Pastor Joshua Hilmy, Ruth Sitepu, Pastor Raymond Koh and activist Amri Che Mat.
Whether Teoh, Joshua, Ruth, Koh and Amri are isolated cases or the tip of the iceberg of political racial, and religious victims and casualties of the deep state in Malaysia is a question that needs to be asked and answered.
Can political change combat the deep state?
Political change through the ballot box is possible as shown by Pakatan Harapan’s win in the 2018 general election and partial victory in 2022, but it clearly cannot take on the dark forces and the deep state by itself.
We have seen in PH’s “reformasi” that political change alone is not enough if not accompanied by a change in mindsets and policies and practices.
It could be one step forward, two steps back as political leaders, especially discredited and desperate ones, hog the limelight to encourage and instigate the dark forces and deep state.
The following are some suggestions that concerned people will need to take up to return the nation to its roots of an equal, just, and law-abiding society.
- Put the issues of ketuanan Melayu and ketuanan Islam (Malay and Islamic supremacy) into the forefront of public consciousness and discourse. There should be no issue or sector that should be regarded as taboo or improper in raising questions, including the operations and conduct of the civil service and judiciary
- The public needs to be proactive and openly challenge the culture of racism and anti-democratic encroachment and discuss how best they can fight it within their own spheres. Increasingly, the decisive battlefield is on social media
- There are at least five important groups of voices that can shine their light on the ethno-cratic deep state and associated racism issues and provide feedback on how to combat it. These are:
- The religious institutions – by raising the consciousness of their constituencies in rejecting racism
- The academic community – through exposure to policies, practices, laws and institutional structures that create or perpetuate the ethnocratic state
- The print and internet media – through fearless news coverage and independent analysis
- The think tanks – in identifying ethno-populist and ethno-supremacist ideologies and ideologues, and rebutting their interpretation of policies
- Civil society organisations through rejection of race-related policies and programmes and by propagating a multi-racial, inclusive society
- Before the next general election, the concerned public should pressure the nation’s political parties to declare their stand on ketuanan Melayu and ketuanan Islam. There should be a demand for parties to work into their party manifestos their party position on institutionalised racism and religious supremacy as well as their plan on how these can be countered
Bread-and-butter and economic issues will be foremost in the electorate’s minds but the welfare and wellbeing of the people are also directly linked to non-economic issues and developments.
Justice at the end of the tunnel?
Ultimately, the fight against the deep state, ethnocratic state and associated Islamic state will have to go hand in hand if a multi-racial, multi-religious, inclusive nation; the rule of law; and democratic norms are to survive.
Clearly, our future rests on the younger generation. But this assumes that this younger generation can break free from the deception, falsehoods and political chicanery, and opportunism that has been their heritage and which continues largely unchecked.
This is why the laudable efforts of the Teoh Beng Hock Trust for Democracy, together with organisations engaged in seeking the truth behind the “disappearances” of Joshua, Ruth, Koh and Amri, and of others seeking to overturn oppression and injustice in Malaysia can make a difference. These efforts must never stop.
Lim Teck Ghee is a former senior official with the UN and World Bank