Monday, December 15, 2008

51, 132, 63, 1535…

If only these were auspicious numbers; you know, for example, the kind that might be the winning numbers for a lottery. Alas, these numbers tell a rather distressing and disturbing story. The numbers convey much about the present state of freedom in the country and, at a deeper level, the lack of confidence it inspires in the regime that has steadily been the author of this story.

After 51 years of Merdeka, we find the country ranked 132 (of a list of 195 countries) on Reporters Sans Frontieres’s press freedom index. Surely this cannot be something the common person on the street would feel proud to read about. If this UMNO-led regime genuinely cared about the importance of a free press – as any credible democracy would – we would not be lingering so low in the press freedom index with only 63 other countries being more notoriously repressive of the press. Well, suffice it to say there is a long, long way to climb before we can count on having a political culture that appreciates the importance of a free and independent press as a building block for a healthy democracy.

As if this index reminding us of the dismal state of press freedoms in the country was not bad enough, we also learn that between 2003-07, a staggering 1535 individuals lost their lives while being under police custody. I remember as a child often seeing in my school books and being told by my various teachers how the policeman is ‘the good guy’; the one who protects us and serves the public. This reinforced the mindset that the policeman ensures our safety; we can be assured that the ‘good guys’ protect the public and epitomise respect for the law. But if these figures on the number of deaths that occurred under police custody from the home ministry itself tell us anything, it is that not only has abuse of police powers gone out of control, these so-called ‘good guys’ themselves have become a leading public safety hazard!

The Malaysiakini article that reports these and other details about ‘Malaysia’s poor human rights record’ is indeed a sobering reminder of some of the fundamental ways in which the democratic institutions of the country continue to deteriorate. Collectively, the various patterns of suppression of political expression and press freedoms are an unequivocal reminder of the ‘progress’ we’ve made in these areas. I must admit, I was somewhat disappointed that the there was no ‘accounting’ of the decline of religious freedom mentioned. I would have thought given, among other things, the discernible practice of targeting and destroying Hindu temples and shrines, surely the home ministry or other ‘watch dog’ groups or NGOs must also be monitoring the state of intolerance toward religious pluralism in the country as well.

You don’t suppose any of those statistics, which might reflect the level intolerance of pluralism, are any more reassuring?

G. Krishnan