Sunday, July 26, 2009

All abuzz over conspiracy theories


The Teoh Beng Hock tragedy has stunned Malaysians and shaken a key government body to the core.

JUST a little over a week ago, few had heard of Teoh Beng Hock. Today, everybody knows his name.

His tragic death at the premises of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) has set off an unprecedented chain of events and reactions. There have been tears and heartbreak, anger and confusion, accusations and counter-accusations.

And most of all, there have been too many questions and not enough answers.

On a more emotional level, Teoh’s death was something many could identify with – the death of a family member. It was talked about in homes, offices and coffee-shops. The blogs and websites throbbed with discussion and conspiracy theories on it.

Videos on YouTube brought the intensity of the tragedy right into people’s homes while the Chinese vernacular papers devoted one page after another to the human drama behind his death and funeral.

One Chinese newspaper even linked his death to the solar eclipse, which coincided with the seventh day of Teoh’s death, a day that many Chinese believe the soul will revisit loved ones. The newspaper superimposed a picture of Teoh on the blacked-out sun, accom­panied by a Chinese couplet: “On Beng Hock’s seventh day; Heavenly dog devours the sun.”

It made for very compulsive reading.

But the most poignant aspect of this tragedy has been the purity of his mother’s grief. The depth of her loss was profound the night his body arrived at their Malacca home and throughout the five-day wake, it was apparent that she could not come to terms with his death.

It has not been easy for this unassuming family to have to share their loss on such a public and political stage. As one journalist from Malacca noted, it was the “biggest political funeral” he had ever seen.

Apart from the top political names who filed through the neighbourhood, the funeral procession resembled a political event with mourners hoisting long banners calling for “Justice for Teoh Beng Hock”.

One banner was as big as an Olympic-sized swimming pool and had to be carried horizontally by a team of people the way the Olympic flag is carried.

“This issue has reached the heart of the com­munity. Women and mothers relate to it,” said former DAP leader Kerk Khim Hock, who hails from Malacca.

The Cabinet decision to have a Royal Com­mission of Inquiry (RCI) as well as an inquest is aimed at finding answers to what had happened and, hopefully, to ensure justice for Teoh and his family.

The RCI will look into the interrogation methods of the MACC while the inquest will seek to answer questions over the cause of Teoh’s death – whether it was murder as claimed, an accident or suicide.

The Cabinet’s swift decision shows that it is in tune with the mood out there. There are very strong opinions on the issue and any delay would have fuelled the unhappiness and sense of wrongdoing among a large segment of society.

Detractors have argued that having a RCI will set an unnecessary culture but a lot is at stake for the administration of Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak and he really wants to get to the heart of matter.

The composition of the RCI is also crucial because it will have bearing on the credibility of the commission. It should comprise people of impeccable standing and certainly it cannot include people with any sort of political baggage.

“Let the investigation be transparent, we are also interested to know what happened. The Government has nothing to hide. We want the world to know what happened,” said one Umno division chief from Kelantan.

But there is also strong opinion that the RCI should extend its scope to look into the cause of Teoh’s death. They say this is a burning issue and that the RCI will have more credibility than an inquest to examine Teoh’s death.

In the meantime, the blame game has not ended on the Internet. While people sympathised with the Teoh family, perspectives on the nature of the tragedy and what ought to be done seemed to be shaped by one’s race.

The DAP has targeted the MACC, with accusations against the government agency ranging from outright murder to selective investigation and unprofessionalism.

Party leaders accused the MACC of a concerted effort to investigate their people with the aim of destabilising the Selangor government.

This has infuriated Umno politicians and members who have stood up for the MACC and accused the DAP of politicising the death. Some Umno-linked newspapers have even defended the government body as a “Malay institution”.

Members from Umno’s Ampang division took to the streets to protest the condemnation of the MACC.

Minister in the Prime Minister’s Depart­ment Datuk Seri Nazri Aziz was roundly condemned when he immediately jumped to the MACC’s defence. But the maverick politician has also been the only Malay figure to openly support the Teoh family’s desire to have his unborn child bear his surname.

The issue has pitched the DAP squarely against Umno in a sort of Chinese-dominated party versus a Malay party.

Umno feels compelled to defend institutions like the police, army and government bodies because almost every Malay has a family member, relative or friend in these outfits.

As such, the broad tarring of such institutions as incompetent and corrupt not only hurts the feelings of those in Umno but also that of ordinary Malays out there.

Then there is the moral aspect. Malay sympathy for the deceased is also coloured by the fact that his fiancee is pregnant. The Muslim in them view such situations quite differently.

But not all of those from the other side assumed a political stance. Wanita Umno chief Datuk Seri Shahrizat Jalil crossed the racial divide when she visited the family house after the funeral and sat talking to the family while holding on to Teoh’s mother. She has also offered to look into the family’s welfare.

Kuala Selangor MP Dr Dzulkifli Ahmad had taken an active part in the debate on the MACC bill when it was tabled in Parliament last year.

“I am trying to be level headed but my worst fears have come true six months down the road. The eventual (MACC) Act was watered down from the original promise and I had serious reservations about its execution. You can debate a bill till the cows come home but the crux lies in its implementation,” he said.

Given this, Dr Dzulkifli was one angry man on the day Teoh died and was among those who staged a sit-in in front of the MACC building.

“He was a public servant. Yet, you have this mishandling of someone coming in to help in an investigation and it ended so tragically. You think people are going to take it lying down and smiling?” he said.

The MACC had enhanced powers but the ethos, the purpose and intent of the new organisation were not clear and the fact that something like this should happen so soon after it was set up is a blow to its image.

Scepticism over the RCI is understandable because the last two royal commissions have fallen short of expectations. Political commitment to carry out the proposals of the RCI is important; some heads will have to roll and there will have to be procedural changes.

The DAP will also have to take a hard look into its own house, particularly the fact that its very own people are under probe for graft after slightly more than a year in power.

It has every right to feel upset that the MACC seems so keen to dig into how its assemblymen spend their allocation while ignoring the elephant before its eyes, namely, Datuk Seri Dr Mohd Khir Toyo’s fabulous house. Many Malay­sians share the perception.

But two wrongs do not make a right and no one can truly claim the moral high ground in this tragedy.

Integrity is crucial to any government institution and public perception does not weigh in the MACC’s favour on this count. The tragedy and the RCI may be the chance for the government body to make a fresh and credible start.

Almost everyone has an opinion on Teoh’s death. But at the heart of it all is a real desire for government institutions to be competent, accountable and professional.

No comments: