Malaysia: What crime did they commit?

July 23, 2011

The six Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM) members detained under the Malaysian government's emergency ordinance since June 25, have been deprived of all creature comforts.

They are locked up in 2-by-2.5 metre cells, in solitary confinement. The lights are on in the cells day and night and one-way mirrors ensure there is no privacy.

Yet the six ― Saras, Letchu, Chon Kai, Babu, Sugu and Kumar ― are not complaining bitterly about their physical circumstances. This is not surprising as in their day to day lives, they have decided to devote themselves to the struggle for a better deal for the downtrodden and for a more just society.

Sarasvathy Muthu, or Saras, began community organising when she joined the progressive Young Christian Workers at the age of 17. When she started working, the plight of oppressed factory workers drove her to organise unions so that they could be in a stronger bargaining position.

In the early 1990s, Saras helped found Alaigal, a Perak-based community organisation, which took on the Perak state government ― defying unjust orders that would render marginalised communities homeless or deprive them of their livelihood.

Saras has organised countless communities in various sectors ― plantation workers, urban pioneers (squatters), farmers and workers ― educating them on their rights and empowering them to struggle as a united community.

Many such struggles have been won using people’s power as a weapon.

Saras was also a founder member of the PSM, formed in 1998 by a group of community organisations that felt the need for elected representatives of their own in parliament.

Saras is PSM deputy chairperson and contested in the 2008 general elections in the state seat of Jelapang. She lost but, as is typical of PSM candidates, she has serviced the badly gerrymandered Jelapang constituency remarkably well.

For her outstanding performance as a social activist, Saras was selected for the Best Female Social Activist award by the Semparuthi Publications team in 2011.

The stories of the other five PSM members in detention are not unlike that of Saras.

Sugu and Letchu opted to commit their time and energy to the struggle to improve the lives of the marginalised since they were teenagers.

Both settled for humble occupations that allow them the flexibility to do community and party work. Sugu taps rubber part of the week on a small family plot, and earns extra money doing electrical work.

What is the crime of these principled men and woman?

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?

Is it a crime to educate people on the host of anti-people policies of the Barisan National government ― the goods and services tax, anti-worker lawa, non-implementation of a minimum wage, signing the “free trade agreement”, privatisation of health care and education, the use of draconian laws such as the Internal Security Act?

When rapacious developers wanted to flatten the homes of the poor in the name of development, these six have not stood idly by. When vegetable and livestock farmers were threatened with eviction, these six have defended the land.

They have been arrested many times for defending people’s right to their homes and livelihood, and social justice.

The six, aged 25 to 57, merely believe that the wealth of the country should be more equitably distributed so that every child can grow up to realise their potential.

When a government deems it politically expedient to lock up good men and women, it is high time we voted it out.

[Abridged from .]

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