Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Dreadful Word

I have warned last week that this is going to be a ‘challenging’ year for all of us, and like it or not, ominous signs are already forcibly tearing apart our cocoons of self-denial and stabbing the underbellies of our comfort zones.

Let’s start by talking about jobs, since jobs give us our salaries. The International Labour Organization (ILO) is already telling us point-blank that as many as 51 million jobs worldwide could be lost this year because of the global economic crisis. As reported by BBC News (Source: Website, posted January 28, 2009), the UN agency is saying that this global job crisis will push up the world's unemployment rate to 7.1% by the end of 2009, compared with 6.0% in 2008 and 5.7% in 2007; that even their most optimistic forecast is for 18 million more unemployed, giving a global jobless rate of 6.1%; and that developing countries will suffer most from additional job losses. In Malaysia, according to Human Resources Minister Dr S Subramaniam, a total of 33,451 workers lost their jobs last year (Source: The Edge Daily, as at website, posted January 22, 2009). This same minister had also indicated that as of January 12, 14,000 workers lost their jobs (Source: The New Straits Times, as at website, posted January 19, 2009) – this statistic already representing almost 42% of the 2008 jobless figure, and painting a very scary picture indeed! Juan Somavia, ILO director-general has rightly warned us: “We can expect that for many of those who manage to keep a job, earnings and other conditions of employment will deteriorate” (Source: BBC News, as at website, posted January 28, 2009).

And more grim news: Malaysia's Bank Negara had already slashed its key policy rate by a surprise 75 basis points to its lowest level in over 10 years, and is expected to cut rates further. Our economics-illiterate government which had boldly trumpeted that economic growth this year will be 3.5 percent, a figure many private sector economists say is overly optimistic, is sounding like a distant echo because last week, Bank Negara itself had to sheepishly admit that the economy was a lot more vulnerable (Source: Website, posted January 21, 2009).

An obvious outcome of a severe economic downturn is that as the economy goes into a tailspin, crime surges and swells. In fact, just by leafing through any Malaysian daily, we can bear witness to rampant crime in many of our cities. And what’s worse, this is accompanied by what the public believes to be – rightly or wrongly – police ineptitude, corruption, and brutality (this last descriptor is best illustrated in today’s edition of the Malay Mail, January 28, 2009) when its editorial (p 2) carries the headline “Who guards the guards?” which I am reproducing here, mostly verbatim:

The death of 22-year-old Kugan Ananthan in police custody on Jan 20 has once again cast a terrible shadow of doubt on the Royal Malaysian Police (RMP). Kugan had been arrested on Jan 15 on suspicion of stealing luxury cars, but died five days later at the Subang Jaya Taipan police station as a result of a pulmonary oedema (a fluid build-up in the lungs).
Post-mortem photographs taken by his family indicated trauma to his back, arms and legs, and while Selangor police chief DCP Khalid Abu Bakar initially dismissed claims that Kugan’s injuries may have killed him, the Attorney-General has classified the young man’s death as murder. Even as the public has been asked not to speculate about Kugan’s death, the fact remains that the lack of clarity in the way the police handled the matter, and in the interrogation of suspects generally, leaves the people little choice.
At stake is the credibility of the entire police force. We have clear procedures through which every death in custody must be investigated immediately by a magistrate – and a coroner would be better – but what we lack is enforcement of these measures despite calls for their implementation from even the highest levels of government.
The 2005 report of the Royal Commission of Inquiry into the police (Royal Commission to Enhance the Operation and Management of the Royal Malaysia Police) found a disturbingly high number of deaths in custody from 2000 to 2004: There were 80 fatalities, and of these only 39 cases were referred to a magistrate – and these in turn resulted in only six inquests.
Likewise, police officers can be cleared of any wrongdoing quickly and with no damage to their reputations if the RMP is subjected to the supervision of the Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission, but the police have rejected the ombudsman because they fear the commission might have an adverse impact on dignity and morale.
The truth is, however, that dignity and morale are the natural results of credibility and confidence. Public faith in the police has been badly shaken, and it is long past the time that such faith be restored.
We really need not ask what to do – the Royal Commission has provided us with a clear list of recommendations that, at the very least, might have made the circumstances surrounding Kugan’s death substantially clearer.
For example, the commission recommended that suspects be allowed access to a lawyer or be produced before a magistrate should they have any complaints about their arrest and detention. What became of this?
We should not, in fact, ask any questions at all except to demand that the commission’s recommendations be implemented fully and without delay.
Whatever we do now, we cannot save Kugan. What we can do is save the Royal Malaysian Police

With all these happening in our own backyard, shouldn’t we Malaysians worry? Perhaps, ‘challenging’ is not the right word; perhaps we should use this word: ‘alarming’ instead, or maybe even ‘dreaded’! ‘Dreaded’ – what a dreadful word!

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