Unexplained death fuels ethnic tensions in Malaysia

By Jonathan Manthorpe (Vancouver Sun)

Less than four months after Najib Razak managed to avoid any blame for the murder of a Mongolian model by some of his bodyguards and become Malaysia's prime minister, he is again facing the problem of an unexplained death.

This time, however, the death plays directly into Malaysia's increasingly divisive politics and is ramping up mounting tensions between the ethnic Malay majority of the population and the large ethnic Chinese minority.

The political uproar in Malaysia concerns the death on July 16 of Teoh Beng Hock, a 30-year-old aide to a minister in the Selangor state government which is controlled by an opposition coalition including the predominantly ethnic Chinese Democratic Action Party (DAP).

Teoh died after being interviewed by officers of the newly-formed Malaysia Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC), which critics say is on a witchhunt against ethnic Chinese politicians on behalf of the national government led by Najib's United Malays National Organization.

The political furor over Teoh's death has been so intense that Najib's government has been forced to appoint a royal commission to investigate. But national opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, himself a victim of politically inspired police and judicial persecution, says the terms of reference of the commission are so tightly written it cannot answer the questions behind Teoh's death or restore public confidence in Malaysia's security and judicial institutions.

The basic facts of Teoh's story are simple.

As part of an investigation into the alleged misuse of constituency development funds by seven members of the Selangor state governing coalition, all of whom happen to be ethnic Chinese, MACC officers conducted a series of raids on July 15.

They went first to the constituency office of Teoh's boss, state government minister Ean Yong Hian Wah. Ean was at the legislature, so the MACC officers went to his office there, where they found Teoh and, at about four o'clock in the afternoon, took him to their headquarters for questioning.

Teoh was taken to the 14th floor downtown offices of the MACC where he was questioned until the wee hours of the following morning, July 16.

The official MACC story is that Teoh finished making a statement at about 3:45 a.m. and was then told he was free to go.

One might assume, and many Malaysians are raising this question, that after such a long and trying experience Teoh would want to leave the MACC offices.

But according to the MACC account he decided to sleep on a sofa in the 14th floor offices and that was the last time anyone will admit to seeing him alive.

Nine-and-a-half hours later, at 1:30 in the afternoon of July 16, Teoh's body was found on the roof of the five storey building next to the MACC tower block.

The results of an autopsy on Teoh's body have yet to be made public and critics have questioned why determination of the causes of death are being left with the coroner's office and are excluded from the royal commission inquiry.

The affair, with its racial overtones, comes at a time of some turmoil in Malaysian life.

The carefully structured political and economic framework put together by former prime minister Mahathir Mohammad between the ethnic Malays, who make up 60 per cent of the country's 28 million people, the Chinese who are a quarter of the population and dominate business, and the South Asians who are about 10 per cent, is showing signs of serious stress and strain.

Chinese Malaysians complain about positive discrimination policies favouring ethnic Malays, which they say foster corruption and inefficiency. Malays rail against Chinese control of the economy.

Since the retirement of former prime minister Mahathir in 2003, UMNO, which has governed Malaysia since independence from Britain in 1957, has gone into a sharp decline.

It still has a majority government at the national level, but Najib took over in April after his predecessor Abdullah Badawi led UMNO into its worst election results ever last year.

Najib was fortunate to still have the political credibility to be able to take over the party leadership and prime minister's post.

His selection came in the final rounds of evidence in a long drawn-out court case against two former members of Najib's police bodyguards who were accused of murdering Mongolian model and translator Altantuya Shaariibu, the pregnant former mistress of Najib's principal policy advisor, Razak Baginda.

Razak was exonerated in the middle of the trial of any involvement in the death of his former mistress, who had been loudly protesting her abandonment outside his family home when she was abducted and killed. Najib escaped any serious allegations, and the two policemen took the fall and were found guilty.