Employers can sack recalcitrant staff, but that’s not an option for governments, much as they may wish to strip their critics of citizenship.
Governments in states with working democracies – where there are strong institutions like an independent judiciary, and free press to check those in power – have to suffer the irritation of fierce critics and dissidents.
But governments in “paper” democracies – where elections are held but watchdogs are muzzled or toothless – have low tolerance for dissent and they make no pretence of playing nice with these difficult people.
A graphic example of how “un-nice” a government can be came with the horrifying torture and murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi.
The journalist, a strong critic of Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman who was in self-imposed exile in the United States, walked into the Saudi consulate in Istanbul on October 2, to pick up documents to marry his Turkish fiancée. He never emerged.
Khashoggi’s death at the hands of his own government recalls the assassination of North Korean Kim Jong-nam in Kuala Lumpur, in February last year.
Analysts believe Kim’s murder was ordered by his half-brother Kim Jong-un, who saw his sibling as a rival to the post of supreme leader of North Korea.
The murders of Khashoggi and Kim show authoritarian governments have no qualms about resorting to extreme tactics to silence those they deem enemies, even on foreign soil.
Khashoggi’s murder has sparked outrage, condemnation and calls for sanctions from Western countries. But the response from the East has been far more muted, even non-existent.
The strongest responses came from Indonesia’s Joko Widodo, who called for a “transparent and thorough investigation”, and Malaysia’s Mahathir Mohamad who described it as an unacceptable “act of extreme cruelty”.
While Mahathir was right, there are in Malaysia several suspected political murders and “disappearances” that occurred under the previous Barisan Nasional government which demand answers.
Crying out for justice is Mongolian national Altantuya Shaariibuu, whose October 2006 murder on the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur was pinned on two police officers who shot her dead and obliterated her body with plastic explosives. Both men were found guilty and sentenced to death. But there is a strong belief that, like in the elaborately planned assassination of Khashoggi, the two police commandos must have been given their orders from much higher up, since they otherwise had no reason to kill a woman they had never met.
Yet another unresolved case that haunts Malaysians is the daylight abduction of Pastor Raymond Koh on February 13 last year. Koh was stopped and taken from his car within the space of a minute by a group of masked men in a convoy of five vehicles and two motorbikes. The operation smacked of a professional “hit”.
Suspicion has fallen on the police, after the wife of another abductee, activist Amri Che Mat, claimed a police officer told her that the Special Branch team that had taken her husband in November 2016 was also behind Koh’s abduction.
Also believed abducted are Christian pastor Joshua Hilmy – who converted from Islam – and his wife Ruth, who were reported missing in March last year.
The “professional” way in which these individuals were kidnapped has prompted speculation they were taken in by authorities after being deemed religious threats to national security. Amri, for example, was accused of spreading Shia Islam.
Questions also surround the murders of deputy public prosecutor Kevin Morais (suspects in his killing are now on trial) and former AmBank chairman Hussain Najadi, which many suspect is linked to the 1MDB financial scandal.
It’s not unreasonable to think that, had the BN won the last election and deepened its corrupt rule, Malaysia would now be edging closer to the dark abyss of unfettered state sanctioned terror against its citizens
That’s why it is imperative for Malaysians to hold Mahathir and his Pakatan Harapan government to their repeated promise to return the nation to the rule of law.
And that means dealing with “difficult” citizens by the book; if they are really threats to national security, charge them openly in court for all to see.
Beyond Malaysia, Khashoggi’s murder elicited little protest from other Asian countries because of the “Islamic influence, and the economic power of Saudi Arabia”, notes Sri Lankan journalist Lucien Rajakarunanayake, writing in the Island newspaper.
Pakistan’s new prime minister Imran Khan candidly admitted to putting his country’s desperate need for funding from the Saudis first. I would add that Muslim-majority nations also have their quotas for Haj pilgrims to protect.
But what can we expect? From India to China and many Asian countries in between, few can boast of being any better than Saudi Arabia when it comes to human rights and tolerating dissent.
According to Amnesty International, states across Asia have detained, jailed and even killed outspoken citizens in the name of national security.
The Philippines government has killed thousands under its widely condemned “drugs war”.
Sri Lanka, says Rajakarunanayake, has another reason for keeping mum over Khashoggi’s murder. It has yet to shed light on who murdered journalist Lasantha Wickrematunga or who abducted missing journalist Prageeth Eknaligoda, despite a change of government.
As for China, if nations hold their tongue on Saudi Arabia because of its economic influence, they would probably prefer to bite it off rather than speak against Big Brother Beijing’s human rights record and treatment of dissidents.
Rajakarunanayake wonders how to gauge the Asian, especially South Asian, commitment to democracy and human rights. On a scale of one to 10, I would give three for most nations and maybe four for a few.
June HL Wong is a columnist with the Star Media Group.
The Asian Writers’ Circle is a series of columns on global affairs written by editors and writers from members of the Asia News Network and published in newspapers, websites and social media platforms across the region.