The dead have rights, too | Selangor Times
Issue 118


The dead have rights, too
Writer: Tricia Yeoh
Published: Fri, 15 Apr 2011

Malaysia is in desperate need of a reliable and trustworthy institute to conduct autopsies, especially in relation to deaths in custody.

Last week, the body of customs officer Ahmad Sarbani was found on the grounds of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) Federal Territory office.

The incident was tragic, but it seemed absolutely ridiculous as this is the second time in three years that a body was found under similar circumstances: interrogation by the MACC, then death from (apparent) fall from height.

This brings to mind Shakespeare’s “There is something rotten in the state of Denmark”.

Political intrigue, possible cover-ups, and a series of mysterious deaths in the state of Malaysia, perhaps?

Deaths in custody

It is reported that since 2000, at least 147 people died in police custody.

Although it is difficult to extract data on the actual number of deaths a year (as official statistics provide varying figures for varying periods of time), it is noted that there were 150 deaths from 1990 till 2004 (10.7 per year), which has increased to 85 deaths between 2003 and 2007 (21.25 per year). (Hector, Aliran, November 2010).

Some cases we can recall. In January 2008, a police constable was charged with causing hurt to extract a confession from A Kugan, 22, who died in police custody. In July that year, P Gunasegaram, 31, was found dead in the Sentul police station. In 2010, sawmill worker P Bapu, 28, was found dead in the Jempol police station.

The statistics above may not even include deaths “outside” the lock-up – for instance, in detention centres due to illnesses or negligence. And they definitely do not include freak incidents such as of Teoh Beng Hock ( July 2010), and Ahmad Sarbani, who both fell from a height at MACC offices.

One thing that ties all these deaths together is that the immediate reaction from the authorities was to claim at first instance that these were suicide cases. It is almost like a predictive tool that whenever a death in custody – or now, under interrogation – occurs, authorities will allude to suicide, the family calls for a second independent autopsy, and the government forms an enquiry into the matter.

This has practically become standard operating procedure by now.

Autopsies in Malaysia

What this really highlights is the growing distrust of Malaysians towards an official line taken on the causes of death. In Malaysia, all autopsies are conducted entirely by forensic pathologists representing the government.

There is a list of criteria required to qualify one as a “Forensic Pathologist” under the National Specialist Register (NSR) that must eventually be approved by the Forensic Pathologist Specialty Committee.

For instance, medical degrees have to be recognised by the Malaysian Medical Council, and postgraduate degrees in Forensic Pathology recognised by the Malaysian government.

There are other detailed requirements that can be found on the NSR website, but as a general rule, all medical practitioners who practise in the country have to be registered with the Malaysian Medical Council, and those working in government hospitals and healthcare facilities must be gazetted by the Ministry of Health.

Even in the cases where a second autopsy took place, this needed to be conducted by a pathologist approved by the government.

For example, Teoh’s second autopsy was carried out by Dr Shahidan Md Noor from the Sungai Buloh Hospital, representing the government of Malaysia, although the government was gracious enough to allow foreign pathologists present as observers.

What shall we do?

Malaysians were taken by surprise at Dr Porntip Rojanasunan, who represented the Selangor government in the Teoh case. She is director general of the Central Institute of Forensic Science (CIFS) at the Thai Ministry of Justice. Very public about
her stand-offs with the Thai police, she is nevertheless still given the independence to carry out the work at CIFS.

This is perhaps because her team is considered a pioneer in many new methods, including setting up a DNA database for local authorities in the south of Thailand, and actually assisting the police in their work on identifying terrorists.

Human rights activists have long called for the Malaysian government to act immediately to, in Dr Porntip’s words, work for the
“rights of the dead”.

These include urging the government to ratify the United Nations Convention Against Torture, and form an Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission.

The Malaysian Bar has most recently called on the government to introduce a Coroner’s Act and establish a Coroner’s Court, and “to conduct a comprehensive review of the manner in which inquiries into deaths are undertaken”.

Finally, autopsies conducted by the government and their conclusions which follow after are increasingly seen to be biased. Is it
time to think of independent autopsies from an institute that Malaysians can grow to trust?

After all, you and I have every right to demand a system of justice we have absolute faith in, a system of justice to protect us in the time we most need it.


 Selangor Times



Also by Tricia Yeoh:

Towards a New Malaysia

THE term “think tank” may evoke images of stuffy bespectacled researchers sitting behind desks towering with stacks of paper.

The Personal and The Professional

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The PAS conundrum – or is it really?

At a recent policy dinner at St. Mike’s, a cozy Ipoh restaurant, I spoke of civil society, reform issues and my experience of having worked at the Pakatan Rakyat-led Selangor government. The discussion eventually centred on one subject alone, that being the ‘PAS conundrum’ (titled by me); conundrum being defined as a confusing and difficult problem or question. 

‘Tis the season to be rallying

THE past weekend has been a busy one indeed. Not only was the city’s annual arts festival, Urbanscapes, taking place, but this time Sigur Ros, the atmospheric Icelandic band graced the occasion and performed right in the heart of Petaling Jaya. 

Can overseas Malaysians contribute?

At the Singapore FreedomFilmFest 2012 where the three documentaries were screened (including The Rights of The Dead, on the late Teoh Beng Hock’s story), a sizeable number of Malaysians interspersed the audience. Roughly making up 20% of the crowd size, the question-and-answer session following the screening reminded me of the aspirations Malaysians living overseas continue to have about their country, back home. 

Models for state and city

As part of the Penang launch of my book, "States of Reform", as well as the FreedomFilmFest screenings of my documentary, "The Rights of the Dead" in the same state, I spent several days in Penang recently (a sister state of Selangor, in the sense that both are governed by the Pakatan Rakyat coalition as a result of the March 2008 elections). 

Lessons from Selangor show way forward

It was an entertaining thought that my friend, Keith Leong, would have spent long hours in the very English Cambridge University writing his MPhil thesis on the Selangor experience under Pakatan Rakyat. 

Dark look at the country’s financial situation

In the lead up to the 13th General Election, economic issues will inevitably be hotly debated by all sides of the political divide. It is within this context that a book of great relevance to Malaysian readers and voters has been recently published. 

Walking the narrow path

I had the privilege of speaking to a group of young interns under the Otak-Otak Internship Programme this week.

Decentralisation the way forward?

At the launch of my book, “States of  Reform: Governing Selangor and Penang” last Saturday, three esteemed panelists, YB Liew Chin Tong (member of Parliament, Bukit Bendera), YB Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad (state assemblypersom, Seri Setia) and Dr Ooi Kee Beng (Deputy Director, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, Singapore) took on the increasingly popular, but also controversial, subject of decentralisation of government in Malaysia.

Wading through the so-called ‘water crisis’

Election fever is in the air, and the games have begun. Last month, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak stated that Selangor was heading towards a water crisis, after the state government blocked the building of the Langat 2 water treatment plant.

That Religious Issue: Faith, Space and Justice

Every now and then arises a hot potato issue that few are inclined to comment upon, namely that of religious sensitivities. This week former Selangor state executive councillor and head of new NGO JATI, Hasan Ali, revealed a video of purported proselytisation of Muslims by a group of Christians.

Four years of PR in Selangor

What the Debate says about the Chinese

The much hyped-up debate between Lim Guan Eng and Datuk Seri Dr Chua Soi Lek last weekend took place with as much drama as there was in the days leading up to it.

Politics vs Policy: How do people really vote?

Malaysian lessons from Bolivia

At the Centre for Independent Journalism’s Human Rights in Outer Space series of events last week, I was asked to speak on a panel analysing the Our Brand is Crisis documentary and draw comparisons between issues arising within it and the Malaysian context.

Sewerage privatisation once again?

Cyberspace was on fire last week after the Auditor-General’s 2010 annual report revealed a host of financial irregularities perpetrated by several government agencies and government-linked companies.

Of schooling and the Budget

In my conversation with Malaysian parents, the topic almost always steers back to the issue of the country’s education system. They are most often in a dilemma about which schools they should place their children in, and which system to opt for.

Setting the tone with Selangorku

Selangor was one of the first governments in Malaysia to have officially celebrated Malaysia Day on Sept 16 in 2009, which was followed thereafter by the federal government in 2010 when it was declared a public holiday.

This year, Selangor launched its version of an agenda in con- junction with Malaysia Day, called "Selangorku", or “My Selangor". The project took about a year to complete, having been initiated when I was then Research Officer at the Selangor Menteri Besar's office. Although I have since moved on, it was indeed a gratifying moment knowing the agenda has finally


Assimilation versus integration

Last weekend, I was invited to speak at a forum organised by the Ministry of Youth and Sports and Institute of Strategic and International Studies (Isis).

Water deal makes Malaysians RM6.5b poorer

A new chapter has unfolded in the long-drawn-out Selangor water saga recently. Acqua SPV, a Special-Purpose Vehicle set up under the gederal government body PAAB (Pengurusan Aset Air Berhad), has announced plans to acquire 100% of Selangor water bonds. The total outstanding bonds come up to RM6.5 billion.

Let’s start talking to one another as a nation

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