Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Malaysia's Abu Ghraib - China Pissed Off?

The Chinese embassy in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, has issued a statement supporting legal action by the Chinese women detained illegally by the Malaysian police, and subjected to humiliating treatment.

Malaysia’s Opposition Leader Lim Kit Siang of the Democratic Action Party (DAP) has been flabbergasted that the Malaysian police chiefs seemed totally indifferent to its own scandal that has the potential to bring about adverse diplomatic relationship between Malaysia and China.

In fact, there’s suggestion that the Chinese authorities probably postponed a visit by Malaysian Home Minister Azmi Khalid to Beijing on a damage control exercise, because of anger in China at the abuse of an ethnic Chinese women in a Malaysian jail. Minister Azmi refused to comment on the China-requested delay.

But renown Malaysian blogger Jeff Ooi posted further incidents of abuse against Chinese nationals by Malaysian officials. He asked succinctly “Have we opened up the pandora box?” alluding to the video-taped Abu Ghraib-ish abuse.

His question seems to tie in with my suspicion that the obduracy of the Deputy Internal Security Minister and Deputy IGP has more to do with the possibility of more as-yet unrevealed abuses by the police.

Lim Kit Siang reminded us any unhappy relationship between economically powerful China and Malaysia will have far-reaching consequences to Malaysia’s tourism, trade, economy and the country's international standing.

This has not been the first time that Chinese citizens had received the blunt end of so-called Malaysian hospitality. A few months ago 340 Chinese tourists visiting a Malaysian hill resort were insulted by 3 of the hotel staff. Those indisciplined staff drew caricatures of pigs on the back of the tourists’ breakfast vouchers. In Malaysia where the majority of its population belongs to the Islamic faith, the pig is considered by Muslims as a dirty and despised animal, thus the caricatures had been meant to insult the Chinese visitors in a degrading manner. The company was forced to apologise after the tourists raised a furor.

The ethnic profiling of female Chinese nationals has, on the surface, been attributed to a number of female Chinese visitors metamorphosing into prostitutes once they have slipped into Malaysia. Ethnic profiling of overseas visitors is not unusual as many of the better-off countries in the region, Singapore, Malaysia, Brunei, had once profiled Filipino female visitors in the same way. Today, post 9/11, western nations profile Middle-eastern visitors or people with Arabic or Islamic names.

The significant difference is the unusually high incidents of police abuse and intimidation perpetrated on the Chinese nationals. It's not all sex-related misconduct as there have been cases of extortion and illegal rifling of money from the detainees' handbags. There is a worried but growing perception that the abuses could be related to ethnic malice.

While Malaysian multi-ethnic society lives in a kind of conditional harmony, there have been inter-ethnic tensions from time to time. Other reasons for the profiled bullying of Chinese nationals could be due to their lack of language fluency and understanding of the legal system in Malaysia, hence making them easy prey.

The Prime Minister of Malaysia, Ahmad Abdullah Badawi has been very concerned about the diplomatic fallout. Even when he was at the Commonwealth Head of Government Meeting in Malta (CHOGM) he called a special news conference to voice his demand an immediate ‘no cover up’ investigation. His deputy, Najib Abdul Razak has also promised that the matter will be dealt with expeditiously and those responsible will not be spared.

It is unfortunate that the Malaysian Abu Ghraib scandal came to light just two embarrassing weeks ahead of the East Asia Summit, which ironically is a Malaysian diplomatic initiative. The Summit will bring the 10 members of ASEAN together with China, Japan, India, Australia and South Korea and New Zealand. Needless to say, the economic primus inter pares is China. Malaysia definitely doesn’t want to annoy the new super economic power, and is attempting to limit the political fallout.

But as Lim Kit Siang pointed out, the police top brass and the Deputy Internal Security Minister Noh Omar seem oblivious to the potential for an international tiff between Malaysia and China, something not to Malaysia’s strategic economic objectives and completely counterproductive to its initiative for the East Asian Summit. The Internal Security trio seem more concerned about battening down the police hatches to cover up the terrible police abuses, than genuinely taking actions to remedy the cancerous problems. The minister and the Deputy IGP have been in full denial mode while the IGP cannot be heard from.

Unfortunately for the diplomatic embarrassment, and indeed an unhappy public, Prime Minister Ahmad Abdullah Badawi lends the impression that he won’t or can’t act decisively, or is moving too slowly. His passive style of leadership may be alright under normal circumstance but the scandal demands some immediate basic interim actions, like ordering the IGP, Deputy IGP (since he chose to put himself into the thick of it), the policewoman who ordered the ear-squats and her immediate line of supervisors to stand aside until the Prime Minister's independent inquiry is completed.

Standing aside is normal procedure for officials or even ministers who are deeply involved with or bear vicarious responsibility for a misconduct or seen to be so. This may provide the public with the required assurance that those officials won't be monkeying with the process of the independent inquiry. A sense of immediacy in a Prime Ministerial order for them to stand aside enhances the public confidence.

Even though there’s no headless chooks yet, which may please some monkeys, in the end, the current Abu Ghraib scandal demands some top heads to roll for a very shameful black page in Malaysia's law enforcement history.

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