Thursday, April 9, 2009

Placating Kugan's ghost and Marginalization of Malaysian Indians

Malaysiakini - Helen Ang Apr 9, 09 2:25pm

In Bukit Selambau, MIC fielded a Datuk who is party Kedah deputy chairperson and an old hand in politics. The PKR victor is a greenhorn almost 15 years younger than his rival. Yet voters placed more confidence in S Manikumar to do the job.

At a press conference on the Kugan autopsies, Dr Mohd Ismail Merican – a Tan Sri who is Health Ministry director-general – tilted to favour ‘years’. He pointed out that Serdang Hospital’s Dr Abdul Karim Tajuddin who conducted the first autopsy had 26 years of working experience as a pathologist.He also revealed Dr Prashant N Samberkar, who carried out the second autopsy, had 11 years work experience mainly in India and Fiji before serving in Malaysia in 2008. The Health DG did not allow that the younger doctor might possibly have done a more honest post-mortem.

It was Monday that he briefed reporters about the inquiry panel finding on discrepancies between the autopsies. On the same day, police seized forensic specimens, photographs, documents and other materials relating to Kugan Ananthan from Dr Prashant’s office at the University Malaya Medical Centre. Since Kugan had perished under police custody, it seems a conflict of interest for police to be raiding Dr Prashant.

The Health DG summarised, “All body injuries noted on the deceased were insufficient, either individually or collectively to cause death directly”.Dr Ismail also added, “There was no evidence that the deceased had been`branded’ or been given repeated application of heat with an instrument or object”. The inquiry instead offered that injuries on Kugan’s back resulted from repeated trauma by a blunt but flexible object, like folded rubber hose.

The authorities fail to explain (in words I can understand) just how Kugan died. Bernama, our national news agency, is no better either with its report headlined ‘Kugan died of Acute Pulmonary Oedema: Inquiry’. As a lay person, I can only surmise that for some unfathomable reason, the youth threw himself backwards against, perhaps, a coiled rubber hose. Wounds and bruises on the body hint that Kugan might have managed this feat remarkably with his limbs bound. He smashed his own back repeatedly over five days in lock-up until his 22-year-old heart gave way.

Friendly cops, and robbers

Kugan is not alive to defend his good name but the mainstream media keep calling him an “alleged car thief”. I prefer to think of him as my fellow Malaysian. Malaysians of Kugan’s skin colour are more inclined to die young, usually after an encounter with police. Following Kugan’s case in January was 20-year-old R Dilip Kumar in February.
Dilip was shot dead by police along with five other Indian men in Kulim.
According to N Naragan’s recce (who together with a human rights group visited the scene of the shootout), Dilip had seven siblings and the family live in a dilapidated little estate house. Two days before the incident, Dilip had asked one of his family members for RM20. Describing Dilip’s injuries, Naragan wrote: “He had gunshot wounds on the forehead and it looked like the back of his head was all bloodied as if from an exiting bullet. He was dressed only in a towel at the time of his death. His parents even had difficulty putting together some money to buy him a shirt and a dhoty for his burial. Thirty six ringgit was all they had.”Like Kugan, Dilip had no criminal record. Yet the media in their reports labelled the men ‘criminals’, ‘armed robbers’ and ‘thieves’ without any qualifiers. We cannot know for sure that Dilip was an armed robber as he was never brought to court, not to mention the lad was likely too poor to afford or acquire a gun. It is really the relationship between poor people and police profiling that bears our scrutiny.

Surviving on RM720

Who is poor and what is considered poor? Jayanath Appudurai writing for the Centre for Policy Initiatives quoted government statistics that in 2007, Malaysia’s poverty rate was 3.6 percent – an admirably low figure. Jaya writes that this Poverty Line Income [PLI] is determined by the government itself. Malaysia’s PLI stipulates that a household – comprising 4.6 people – in the Peninsula earning more than RM720 a month is not deemed impoverished. However if a PLI of RM1,000 were to be employed, then 8.6 percent of households would be poor instead of the 3.6 percent as claimed by the authorities. If a PLI of RM1,500 is used, then one-fifth of Malaysians are mired in poverty, or a total of 1.2 million households. Is the government baseline of RM720 a realistic figure to sustain a family of four-and-a-half persons, Jaya questions?(To sidetrack slightly, the roughly RM157 – as stated by Malaysia for each individual to minimally survive a month on – is not enough to pay for a Children one-day entry ticket to Paris Disneyland which costs RM182.)

State expenditure, for instance in Kugan’s home state of Selangor, on poverty eradication programmes might properly be asked of Disney-loving ex-Selangor menteri besar Dr Khir Toyo. While police undoubtedly have an image problem, how Joe Public reacts to the polemics should be tempered as well, Jaya writes in his other article (this one on the Kugan case). Popular depiction of the Indian community is pulled in two opposite directions.

One is that of gangsters and criminals. The Hindraf movement started both because of the Indian community’s own concern over its social problem of gangsterism, and Police Watch’s alarm over custodial deaths.But it doesn’t clarify matters when the authorities choose to ban the messenger Hindraf rather than address the root cause of their grievances, which is poverty begetting poverty and the lack of legitimate opportunities.

How now, sacred cow?The other popular depiction pushed by official media like Utusan is that Indians have nothing to complain about because many are doctors and lawyers. But even before Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar screwed the statistics, Dr Mahathir Mohamad did. “It (the number of Indian doctors) never was 40 percent until I was PM. Why didn’t they say ‘thank you, thank you, thank you’?

I get many people coming up to me to say thank you but very few Indians say thank you”, Dr M told an interviewer on the eve of the last general election. Samy Vellu rebutted saying that Mahathir did very little for the Indian community when he was prime minister. “Despite the MIC appealing again and again for help, he refused to budge.”

The BN formula has been of ethnic champions appealing to the grace of one autocrat or to Umno ‘proper channels’. Using this method to solve national problems has not proven effective. If, as Samy recently conceded, Indians were in dire need of assistance and not getting it, then it is the way the whole system operates that’s at fault.
The NEP was intended to help every Malaysian who is poor. It obviously didn’t and doesn’t. For those who feel they do not owe the Mahathir regime their gratitude, the way forward is to change the status quo. This is being slowly altered through electoral mandate. However, the more insidious canker (because unlike loud politicians they’re less obvious) is bureaucratic functions. These range from Biro Tata Negara to the Little Napoleon in Ipoh city council who ordered the Democracy Tree plague to be removed by tractor, to top civil servants in ministries and state secretariats. To further good governance, we clearly need a reform in the ruling parties; even our erstwhile premier finally admitted it in his final address as Umno president.
But at the same time, do replace some rusty cogs in the wheels of government machinery too.

Disclosure: The writer is attached to Centre for Policy Initiatives.