It has been almost two months since the 14th general elections that saw a change of government in Malaysia. The Pakatan Harapan coalition swept to a convincing victory, campaigning on a platform of reforms and vows to ease the burden of living for Malaysians. Most importantly, they were elected because the people saw hope for a new Malaysia after sixty years of one-party rule.
Overnight, Malaysia transformed from a flawed, authoritarian democracy into an example that many of our South East Asian neighbours aspire to emulate. My friends from Thailand, Indonesia, Myanmar and the Philippines wonder how we overthrew a sixty-year regime through peaceful elections and cite us as a role model for their own countries. Academics such as Professor William Case also acknowledges the novelty of what happened in Malaysia, calling it a “case of bottom up replacement”, where an “electoral authoritarianism” was overthrown not by protesters taking to the streets, but by the people coming out to cast their vote.
This method of overthrowing regimes can be considered to be highly unusual in this part of the world, as examples from Suharto’s reign in Indonesia, Marcos in the Philippines and Thailand’s numerous military coups have shown. Although I remain skeptical of the current Prime Minister, I will not discount the fact that as Malaysians, we should be proud of what we achieved.
A change of government, however, does not mean that lives of the most marginalised in society improves. International news agencies, in their enthusiasm over Malaysia’s newfound democracy and fascination over the cash, Birkins and jewels found in former Prime Minister Najib Razak’s residences, choose not to highlight the alleged enforced disappearances of Amri Che Mat, Pastor Raymond Koh, Pastor Joshua Hilmy and Ruth Hilmy. The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (SUHAKAM) inquiry on Amri’s disappearance has revealed explosive details on the possible involvement of the Royal Malaysian Police in these cases, which is extremely disturbing.
Enforced disappearances were a common occurrence during the junta regimes in Argentina, Chile, and a little closer to home, Sri Lanka. Disappearances in these countries happened against the backdrop of civil wars or military purges against those seen to be loyal to the previous regime, and number by the thousands. Until today, the mothers, wives, husbands, children and grandchildren of the disappeared continue to suffer the pain of losing their loved ones, with no answers or closure, while the perpetrators walk free. Argentina, Chile and Sri Lanka have since ended their civil wars and military rule, with Chile even leading its Latin American neighbours in human development, competitiveness and income per capita.
The point I am trying to make is, enforced disappearances happen within the context of a murderous regime intent on killing their own people. They occur within the larger ambit of extreme political and economic instability, where extrajudicial killings and torture are the order of the day. They certainly do not happen in a stable, prosperous, democratic nation like Malaysia, whose institutions and policies might have failed us in the past, but as a people, we have essentially lived in peace under a government not hell-bent on killing us.
Which is why I need to impress upon the abnormality and unacceptability of the disappearances of Amri Che Mat, Pastor Raymond Koh, Pastor Joshua Hilmy and Ruth Hilmy. It beggars belief how some Malaysians can live extremely comfortable lives and enjoy so much prosperity, and at the same time be under the mercy of those in power who are able to use the overwhelming machinery of the state to stifle dissent and tear families apart. Amri Che Mat was alleged to have spread Shia teachings, whilst Pastors Raymond, Hilmy and Ruth were said to proselytise Muslims. Shiism is deemed to be deviant in Malaysia, and proselytising to Muslims is against the law, both problematic in themselves, but can anything possibly justify forcibly taking individuals away from their families with no explanation whatsoever of their whereabouts and return? Surely nothing can.
As I am writing this, news is pouring in regarding the arrest of Najib, presumably on charges of corruption. While it is indeed satisfying to see action finally being taken on Najib, let us not forget the numerous other Malaysians and non-Malaysians suffering on our soil as a result of oppression and injustice, committed by both state and non-state actors. Migrant workers, refugees, stateless persons, indigenous peoples, religious minorities and the poor continue to be marginalised and vulnerable to violence, and as a nation, it is pertinent that we ask ourselves – where are they in this new Malaysia? We must also continuously remind ourselves that within this blessed land, powerful forces are always at work, forces which have no hesitation in destroying innocent lives.
Lest we forget.
This article is dedicated to Amri Che Mat, Pastor Raymond Koh, Pastor Joshua Hilmy, Ruth Hilmy as well as their family and friends who, despite overwhelming odds, never lose hope.