Azilah & Co: The deadly need to challenge authority

DECEMBER 19 — What went through Chief Inspector Azilah Hadri’s mind as he escorted Altantuya Shaariibuu to her gruesome death outside Malaysia’s capital 13 years ago?

An officer’s resolve to execute instructions, an indifference to the task when it is to fulfil a state duty with impunity. Or a visibly-shaken man filled with doubt, aware of the horrible deed expected of him in the dead of night, more so with moonlight missing deep in the woods?

Maybe a mix of both. Surely, he struggles to remember how he felt that day, as he sits now as a death-row inmate. In a Kajang Prison cell, his thoughts often about home, Sarikei in Sarawak’s Sixth Division. And the two rivers which run by it. The family he left to better himself in uniform, only to trade it for the shame of prison attire, left with few who’d still call him friend openly. Accompanied by the tick of an imaginary countdown in his head, whispering his time left on this earth. 

The hangman waits. He killed a pregnant woman.

Yet it was all so promising back then. Thirty years old and in the special protective division, UTK (Unit Tindakan Khas), 2006 was a time of promise for Azilah.

Did he have to follow orders?

How obedient is the modern Malaysian to the ruling class? Are we different from our parents and grandparents who worried about the wrath of the powerful? Is the arriving decade one where dissent dominates in the hearts of my countrymen?

Are we Azilahs who say no to the will of the mighty?

To simply speak truth to power.

Bask in the sunshine of supreme leaders

While Azilah and Lance-Corporal Sirul Azhar Umar — asylum-seeking in Australia — hold contradicting views on why they killed a Mongolian model they did not know, they do not contest the what, where and how.

What transpired in Puncak Alam on October 19, 2006 is not conjecture. They maintain they were ordered to do so. They had no prior relations with the victim nor valid motive to harm her. 

However, to detonate a corpse with high-grade explosives in a secluded zone to destroy all evidence, removes any sympathy regardless of themselves being pawns in a game they had no control over.

But they are not alone in the docks. The rest aren’t quite as sordid, but the damage incalculable.

Former auditor-general Ambrin Buang admits in court the 1MDB audit report was compromised in 2016. It’s widely reported about how upset Ambrin was during the said meetings.

Ali Hamsa, then-chief secretary to the government, would’ve been cognisant of it.

Based on his court testimony at the same trial, at least.

Ali witnessed too, former deputy prime minister and now Home Minister Muhyiddin Yassin and ex-attorney general Gani Patail unceremoniously removed in 2015 over their opposition to 1MDB developments.

This is indeed the season of admittance without penance. And more follows.

Khairuddin Tarmizi signed a statutory declaration in 2017 to defend then-deputy prime minister Zahid Hamidi and today he claims the contents are untrue. Why?

Zahid is Bagan Datoh MP. A year after aligning openly to Zahid’s virtue, Khairuddin was named candidate for the Hutan Melintang assembly seat inside the parliamentary constituency. With Zahid’s recommendation one might surmise. Khairuddin wins, but Barisan Nasional loses Perak and more the mortal wound, the country.

Bold before to back a DPM, Khairuddin today lacks enthusiasm to stay loyal to merely party president Zahid facing financial misappropriation charges.

Not to be the only one to bail on Zahid, ex-classmate and former trustee Mohd Samshuri Tun admits to signing blank cheques for the Umno president which he had no inkling over their utilisation.

Why did they not speak up then?

These instances illuminate the absolute grip leaders had over underlings up to 2018, when Barisan Nasional (BN) fell in a general election.

In the aftermath, even for the wrong reasons, rebellion is rife inside the civil service. There is utility in dissent despite the counter argument our culture demands perpetual acquiescence.

Regime change can do that. It broke the power monopoly.

Previously, everything was OK if you are with those in power, everything’s a disaster if you back the Opposition.

While that may spell danger for Pakatan Harapan, rabble rousers abound, it disallows a leviathan to curtail and threaten common folks. Whether you are Azilah or Altantuya.

Conscientious Malaysia

We won’t admit, at least not at the first ask, that we hide behind culture. To justify poor behaviour.

Azilah and Sirul must have sensed things were amiss, but so gigantic were leaders in their eyes, their omniscience overwhelming, the gumption to say no, no matter how hideous the ask was, they could not refuse.

It’s clear they were under orders, though from whom those orders emerged from will be argued in perpetuity due to our polarised politics. It’s true or comedic depending on who you bat for. There are millions in the Philippines who’d swear Ferdinand Marcos did not plunder his country for 20 years. There are always people like that, in a democracy.

Pliant too were an auditor-general, chief secretary, party operator and businessman, when asked to go along with the will of the powerful. They wouldn’t speak truth to power.

They are just some of the tens of thousands who’ve served Malaysian leaders over six decades, surrendering their judgements and obligations to higher forces they can’t reject. Their defence, culture. Subservience in the service of the powerful is a necessary good in a proper Asian community.

How long must we sing this song?

Santiago’s death

As mentioned above, the courage to challenge power keeps us safe. It forces leaders to fear retribution and encourages them to operate within authorised parameters.

A Few Good Men is a fecund moral play. And Aaron Sorkin a genius. He speaks to Malaysia in it.

Two soldiers are charged with the murder of their colleague, PFC William Santiago. It was an illegal disciplining exercise which went awry.

Their defence, they were ordered to by their base commander. Colonel Jessep has his comeuppance but the two, Downey and Dawson, despite no jail time are dishonourably discharged.

The younger one, Downey, stripped of his only identity as a US marine, is inconsolable.

“We did nothing wrong,” he screams over and over.

“Yes, we did,” Dawson replies before uttering the damning lines.

“We were supposed to fight for people who can’t fight for themselves, we were supposed to fight for Willie (Santiago)”

Which is what perhaps the policemen and other actors forgot in their eagerness to please power. While they can’t understand everything or rationalise everything, there are those involved in this, far more than their bosses, the people of these country. The rakyat.

It’s not wrong to expect more from those capable — even if only in theory — to say no to power. Most of the rakyat never even rise to a position where they have the opportunity to say no. They live the life shovelled to them.

But of those who could have said no, and did not, they should have expected more from themselves. They were supposed to fight for the people. Those who can’t fight back.

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.

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