Dennis Ignatius attended the book launch of Where Is Pastor Raymond Koh? last week.
I went not because I knew Koh or the other victims of enforced disappearance (Pastor Joshua Hilmy and his wife Ruth Sitepu, and Perlis welfare activist Amri Che Mat); I did not have that privilege. I went because I was angry – angry at the obvious indifference of the government (past and present) over their fate, angry that their families have been denied closure, angry that such a thing could take place in our nation, angry that such ugliness lingers on even in this Malaysia Baru of ours.
Written by Stephen Ng and Lee Hwa Beng, Where Is Pastor Raymond Koh? tells the shocking story of enforced disappearances in Malaysia under Barisan Nasional (BN) rule. It is a compelling narrative of the pain, anguish and uncertainty endured by the families of the missing as well as their unrelenting quest for justice. It is also very much a story about the determination of ordinary citizens, lawyers, civil society groups and churchmen to hold their government accountable.
The book summarises as well the key findings of the inquiry conducted by the Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) that pointed to the involvement of Special Branch in the disappearances of Koh and Amri. If not for the Suhakam report, a great crime might well have been buried under a mountain of official denial, deceit and duplicity. Malaysia owes the brave commissioners of Suhakam a huge debt of gratitude for their courage and unstinting commitment to justice and human rights.
Only three questions now remain: (i) where are the four missing persons? (ii) who ordered their abduction and why? (iii) when will those guilty of this heinous crime be brought to justice?
The Suhakam verdict has cast a long shadow over our police force and its top leadership. The behaviour and attitude of then-inspector-general of police Khalid Abu Bakar, in particular, was shocking and unprofessional.
How such a man, once chastised by a judge for his lack of credibility and integrity, could rise to occupy the highest law-enforcement post in the land says a lot about the kind of country we have become; blind loyalty to Putrajaya is prized far above truth, justice, the law, integrity, character and professionalism.
We now have in Hamid Bador an IGP who has committed himself, and the men and women who serve under him, to a higher standard of professionalism and integrity. All Malaysians will no doubt wish him well and pray that he will not let the nation down as others before him have.
More troubling still is the apparent complicity of the government itself. The operation to abduct Amri and Koh could hardly have been the work of rogue elements in the security services acting on their own. All four missing persons had one thing in common: they had all run afoul of the religious authorities. Did powerful forces within the religious establishment conspire with the Special Branch and others in government to abduct them?
Whatever it is, it is simply too much to believe that neither the prime minister nor the home minister, and certainly the IGP at the time, were unaware of the truth. And if they were not aware, they ought to have left no stone unturned to get to the bottom of the matter. That they did nothing but stonewall and obfuscate at every turn suggests there’s something to hide.
What is even more surprising, and deeply distressing, is that the charade has continued under the Pakatan Harapan government.
Home Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s belated response to the Suhakam verdict – a so-called task force to investigate the disappearance of Amri (but not Koh) – is itself very revealing. With no credibility, no legal framework and no terms of reference, the task force is nothing more than a sham, a pretence at investigation, an insult to the intelligence of decent Malaysians.
Even Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad seems unwilling to treat the issue with the seriousness it deserves.
At the end of the day, we are left with the inescapable conclusion that this government, like its predecessor, is engaged in a grand conspiracy to hide the truth. Perhaps the truth – that agents of the government, possibly acting on the authority of senior officials, abducted and murdered four religious workers – is too horrible, too politically explosive to be revealed. But it must be told because it is only in the telling that we might find redemption, restoration, and perhaps some closure. There has already been too much abuse of power in our land to simply forget and move on.
The ball is now in the government’s court. If the government expects to be taken seriously, it must urgently establish a new task force with clear legal authority, clear objectives, and more credible members from the Bar Council, civil society and the churches to get to the bottom of this whole sordid affair. And if our new IGP truly wants to redeem the honour of the institution he leads, he must commit himself to uncover all the facts of the case no matter where it leads him.
Make no mistake, the credibility of the entire Cabinet, as well as the government, is now on the line. PH leaders can insist that justice be done or hide behind excuses. One thing they can no longer do is feign ignorance of the ugliness that now stares us all in the face.
More than a century ago, Emile Zola, faced with a grand conspiracy to cover up a grave injustice, challenged his nation with a sobering truth: “to keep silent is to be an accomplice.” The voices of Amri Che Mat, Raymond Koh and Joshua and Ruth Hilmy cry out for justice; silence cannot be an option. – FMT
Dennis Ignatius is a former ambassador.
The views expressed are those of the author.