How many deaths does it take?

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The death in police custody of Kugan Ananthan, a 22-year old who was arrested on suspicion of being part of a luxury car-theft racket has eroded the credibility of the police force among a significant section of the Malaysian people. Unless there emerges the political will to deal with the record of abuses in the police seriously and openly, this credibility is not about to be recovered soon, observes Farish Noor.

Commenting on the loss of credibility and legitimacy of the Burmese state security forces in the eyes of the Burmese people and the international community, the Burmese activist leader Aung San Su Kyi once said: “All they have left are their guns”.

Indeed, if the possession of a badge is the only thing that differentiates a law enforcement officer from the ordinary public or the criminal fraternity, then it can be said that the line between law enforcement and the absence of law and order is a fine one. It has become a truism worldwide that once that line is fatefully and fatally crossed, it would be next to impossible to redeem the reputation and standing of any law enforcement agency again. This was the case of the police in South Africa during the days of apartheid, whose job it was not to protect all South African citizens but rather to prop up the apartheid regime at the cost of the freedom of others. The same applies to the stained reputation of the security forces of many other developing countries, from Zimbabwe to Pakistan to Sri Lanka to the Philippines, whose job it seems is to protect the ruling parties and the political elite rather than to provide for the safety of the population at large.

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Today Malaysia seems to be heading down the same path as more and more revelations of misdemeanours among the state security forces come to light. The most recent case being that of Kugan Ananthan, a 22-year old who was arrested by the Malaysian police on suspicion of being part of a luxury car-theft racket. Kugan was later found dead at the Subang Jaya police station, and the initial explanation for his death was ‘water in the lungs’.

However the relatives of Kugan were able to get photographs of the young man’s body that showed signs of physical abuse and fresh wounds. Once again the Malaysian police is in the limelight for the wrong reasons, and several police officers have been called to an inquiry.

What is deeply troubling about the death of Kugan is the fact that there seems to be a pattern of young Malaysian men of Indian descent dying under police custody for some years now. Among the other notorious cases that have made the headlines are that of B Prabakar, who reported that he was not only beaten and kicked by policemen but also had boiling water thrown upon his body. Then there is the case of Sanjeev Kumar who alleged that he was not only forced to drink urine but was also sodomised with a broom. Deaths in custody have now become a regular occurrence, and other Malaysians of Indian ancestry like K Letchumanan and Uthaya Chandran were found dead in their cells.

Coming at a time when race relations are at a low point in the country, the death of Kugan in police custody has presented the administration of Prime Minister Badawi with another problem. With less than two months at the helm to go before his declared date of retirement, Prime Minister Badawi’s action over the Kugan case may well determine his fate and how he will be judged in the months and years to come.

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But the Malaysian government’s official position thus far has been to maintain that order must be maintained and that there should be no outpouring of support for Kugan. The Minister for Home Affairs, Syed Hamid Albar has taken the line that Malaysians “should not regard criminals as heroes or the police as demons”. Though in this case the controversy lies not in the arrest of Kugan, but what was done to him and the circumstances of his death.

For politicians on the opposition benches, the case of Kugan’s death under police custody marks yet another dip in the reputation of the Malaysian government and its capacity to maintain law and order. For Parliamentarian Sivarasa Rasiah of the People’s Justice party (PKR), “Kugan’s shocking death by torture has unleashed an unprecedented level of outrage” among the Malaysian public, notably the Malaysian Indian community. Dr Dzulkefly Ahmad of the Malaysian Islamic party (Pas) noted that “this must be the last case of police brutality and death in custody. Our civilised society can no longer stomach this”. The final judgement, however, will fall on the performance of the Badawi administration during its last weeks in power, according to Lim Kit Siang of the Democratic Action party (DAP), for “Kugan’s death marks the abysmal and final failure of Abdullah (Badawi’s) reform programme – standing out as a tragic symbol of the pathetic end of his pledge for police and institutional reform”.

Just how the Badawi administration will handle the outpouring of grief, anger and frustration from the Malaysian public – and the Malaysian Indian minority community in particular – remains to be seen, but for the moment it can be concluded that the death of Kugan in police custody has once again driven a wedge among the communities in Malaysia and has emphasised the marginalised position and status of the Indian Malaysian minority especially.

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With a weakened Badawi about to exit the stage of politics for good and hid deputy Najib Razak poised to take over control of a ruling Umno party in disarray in March, the ship of the Malaysian state is in choppy waters for certain. Coupled with the global economic downturn that will also contribute to further demands from the Malaysian public for state assistance and protection, whoever runs Malaysia will have to cater to a myriad of needs; all of which are equally urgent and all of which need to be satisfied now.

But one thing is certain at this juncture at least: Whatever the state of the Malaysian economy and government may be in the months to come, the state-apparatus will only work if it has credibility in the eyes of the Malaysian public. At the moment the institution of the Malaysian police force has lost credibility and standing among a significant section of the Malaysian people, and unless there emerges the political will to deal with the record of abuses in the police seriously and openly, this credibility is not about to be recovered soon. By then, as Aung San Suu Kyi once said, “all they will have left are their guns”.

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