Wednesday 20 July 2011

Curbing Christians, communists and conscience

Political pressure is continuing to mount over the government's decision to use the Emergency Ordinance (EO) to lock up six members of the Socialist Party of Malaysia, or Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM). The PSM 6 have been held without trial since July 2, in a manner identical to detention under the unpopular Internal Security Act (ISA).

The detainees, Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj, 56, Choo Chon Kai, 33, A Letchumanan, 49, M Sarasvathy, 58, R Saratbabu, 25, and M Sukumaran, 50, have reported mistreatment by the police, saying they have suffered verbal and physical abuse, blindfolding, sleep deprivation, and perhaps most taxing of all, solitary confinement. No charges have been laid after 18 days.

NONEThe police initially fed the mass media a glut of justifications for arresting the PSM 6. One excuse was that they were a threat to national security, because the bus they were on was carrying 'communist' T-shirts. As time has worn on, the police have stopped issuing statements on the EO detainees. 

PSM secretary-general S Arutchelvan (left) has relayed reports from the detainees that police interrogations have concentrated on extracting some kind of confession from them. 

Among the bizarre questions, Arutchelvan says, are “Why is Sarasvathy not married? Who is funding her?” as well as “Can Anwar Ibrahim be trusted?” and “What do you think of Ukraine medical school?” Other questions addressed the PSM support for Bersih 2.0. 

The police are under increasing pressure from international and local human rights groups, including Amnesty, Asia Forum, Human Rights Watch, Freedom House, Aliran and Suaram, to release the PSM 6.
Waiting for habeas corpus

The police appear to be awaiting some word from Premier Najib Abdul Razak or Home Minister Hishammuddin Hussein. However, they have been abroad, and appear to be indecisive. Their damage control efforts, following mass support and a brutal police crackdown at the Bersih 2.0 rally, are in disarray.
The PSM 6 have been left waiting anxiously for an appearance at the Kuala Lumpur High Court for a writ of habeas corpus on Friday. It is expected that pro-democracy supporters and lawyers will congregate at the court in Jalan Duta on that morning to back the detainees.

“What is the crime of these principled men and woman, who call themselves socialists?” Rani Rasiah, Dr Kumar's wife, and a PSM central committee member, wrote to supporters of the detainees yesterday.
NONE“Is it a crime to devote one's life to the service of humankind without any expectation of gain or reward?
“Is it wrong to criticise the government, and educate the rakyat on the host of anti-people policies of the BN government – the GST, amendments to the labour law, non-implementation of a minimum wage, subsidy withdrawal, signing of the Free Trade Agreement (FTA), privatisation of health care and education, the use of draconian laws such as the ISA, and so on?”

She explained the PSM 6 believe that Malaysia's wealth should be more equitably distributed, so that all children can grow up to realise their potential, and not have their development crippled by lack of access to basic necessities.

“(The PSM 6) think it is not okay for the government to merely show in its statistics that the income of 34 percent of Malaysian workers is below the poverty line,” she went on. “What is the crime in all this?”

A Christian and a socialist

Dr Jeyakumar Devaraj, a lung and internal medicine specialist, is a role model all Malaysians can look up to. He served as a government doctor in Ipoh for nearly 20 years, caring for patients with illnesses such as asthma and tuberculosis. 

He made lots of house visits too. He visited urban pioneers, called squatters by the authorities, and supported their efforts to obtain decent housing. He cycled to provide free tuition to children from struggling families, and helped establish the 'Kalvi kulu' education group in the mid-eighties. He served as a medical officer in rural Sarawak, and wrote reports on the violent injuries sustained by workers in Kapit in the logging industry.
Together with his wife Rani, he set up 'Alaigal' in 1992, an NGO working in Sungai Siput to organise, inform and inspire urban pioneers and estate workers. They and their team were educated and inspired in return. Their experiences mirrored the dialectic expressed in Paulo Freire's writings in education and community development: teachers learn from their students, even as students learn from their teachers. 

'Alaigal' means 'wave' in Tamil, and the NGO certainly made its presence felt. Both Rani and Dr Kumar are intelligent, articulate and driven facilitators. The NGO spread ripples through some of the most marginalised communities in peninsular Malaysia, then grew into an increasingly influential social movement. 

Alaigal supported the urban pioneers as they took companies to court, and picketed developers trying to flatten their homes. Government officials with vested interests had been helping these developers evict the 'squatters', and were repeatedly frustrated by Alaigal.

The wave caught the attention of then-Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC) president Samy Vellu. According to Dr Kumar, Samy Vellu attempted to have him transferred away, to Terengganu, Pahang, or Kedah - anywhere, it was made clear, except Perak.

d jeyakumar psmDr Kumar (right) resisted the 'instructions from above' to move. He was threatened with the sack, and went to see the director-general of health, Dr Abu Bakar Suleiman. Dr Kumar says the director-general pointed out a loophole in the general orders that allowed a civil servant to retire early with limited pension benefits, if he or she did so in order to stand for public office.

“The loophole was designed for civil servants to resign and stand for election for Umno,” Dr Kumar once recounted to me, with a smile, “so I left the government service to stand for Parliament.” 

A new MP for Sungai Siput

Dr Kumar continued to heal and comfort patients as a respiratory physician at a private hospital. He was honoured with a Malaysian Medical Association (MMA) outstanding community service award. He also spearheaded a national coalition against the privatisation of Malaysia's national healthcare system. 

He became a founding member of the PSM in 1998. The PSM was denied registration until August 2008, so he stood for the DAP against Samy Vellu in the Sungai Siput parliamentary election in 1999. He was unsuccessful. He contested under the PKR banner in 2004, but was denied by the MIC president again.
samy vellu and mic 160408In 2008, Samy Vellu lost his seemingly iron-clad seat, swept away by Alaigal and the nationwide political tsunami. Dr Kumar's victory, against staggering odds, drew delighted responses from across the entire country.

Unlike the vast majority of elected representatives or YBs, Dr Kumar has been reluctant to believe the hype about YBs, and has remained firmly grounded. He remains the same modest, thoughtful doctor as he always was.

He also retains a quiet faith in Christianity, handed down from his parents. Both his parents had a sterling record of lifelong voluntary community service. His father, Dr TP Devaraj, set up Penang's first hospice, while his mother established a shelter for abused women and children. 

Theologians have argued that many of the teachings of Jesus are socialist in content. Dr Kumar has said he sees the Christian concept of 'stewardship' of nature and creation as important in his worldview.

“We believe that the world has to find a workable alternative to an economy driven by corporate greed,” Dr Kumar wrote from his jail cell in Kuala Lumpur yesterday. 

“The problems we are facing are extremely serious. Unchecked they could lead to an ecological, food or climatic disaster…This is not the world that I wish to bequeath to my grandchildren. That is why I am a socialist and intend to remain so despite the EO/ISA arrest.”

NONEHis faith in Christianity certainly runs counter to assertions by the police that the PSM 6 were 'communists' waging war against the King. Sarasvathy, a national vice-chairperson of the party, was a national representative of Young Christian Women, Malaysia. 

The other detainees are all PSM office bearers. Letchumanan helped to build Kalvi kulu and Alaigal. Sukumaran, the son of a rubber tapper, taught in Kalvi kulu. Choo is editor of party newspaper Berita Sosialis. Saratbabu founded Alaigal Youth and is studying law.

Dr Kumar has always been a gentleman as an MP, and as a doctor and grassroots political activist. Fellow parliamentarians such as DAP Serdang MP Teo Nie Ching have supported the PSM 6. Teo attended one of the daily candlelight vigils for the prisoners, held outside Bukit Aman police headquarters, on the evening of July 15. 

NONEAgainst a backdrop of the glare of the giant police searchlights at the Bukit Aman gates, she spoke against detention without trial, amidst the flickering lights of candles, held by a hundred people of different ethnic and social backgrounds. 

Bar Council president Lim Chee Wee told the gathering that there simply could be no rational reason for the Emergency Ordinance to be used against the six detainees.
The PSM 6 remain prisoners of conscience, in solitary confinement, but not alone.

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