When a government deems it politically expedient to lock up good men and women, it is high time we voted it out, writes Rani Rasiah. She goes on to provide a glimpse of one of these women, Sarasvathy Muthu, now freed but facing charges in court on 10 October 2011.
“I have everything except my freedom,” said Choo Chon Kai, one of the six detained under the EO, to family members during a 15-minute visit. ‘Everything’ was, in truth, nothing much, as the six were deprived of all creature comforts, having been locked up in a 2.0m by 2.5m cell in solitary confinement in a police remand centre.
The lights were on in the cells day and night and one-way mirrors ensured there was no privacy.
Yet the six – Saras, Letchu, Chon Kai, Babu, Sugu and Kumar – did not complain bitterly about their physical circumstances. This was not surprising as in their day-to-day lives, they have chosen to lead simple lives. They have decided to drop out of the rat race, and devote themselves to the struggle for a better deal for the downtrodden and for a more just society.
Political detainee Saras
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Sarasvathy Muthu or Saras as she is called began her involvement in 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 and others founded Alaigal, a Perak-based community organisation, which throughout its years of existence, shook the Perak state government by defying and challenging amongst others, unjust orders that would render marginalised communities homeless or deprive them of their livelihood.
A community organiser par excellence, 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 against whoever oppressed them. Many area struggles have been won using people’s power as a weapon.
Saras was also a founder member of Parti Sosialis Malaysia, a party that was formed in 1998 by a group of community organisations that felt the need for elected representatives of their own in parliament and in
state assemblies. Saras is the Deputy Chairperson of PSM and contested in the 2008 general elections in the state seat of Jelapang.
She lost but as is typical of PSM candidates, she has not been a loser. Known for her hard work, tenacity and courage, she has serviced the badly gerrymandered Jelapang constituency remarkably well. For her outstanding performance as a social activist, Saras was selected as the ‘Best Female Social Activist’ 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 the time they were teenagers. Both of them decided to settle for humble occupations that would allow them the flexibility that is so important in community and party work. Sugu taps rubber part of the week on a small family plot, and earns extra money doing wiring.
What is the crime of these principled men and woman, who call themselves socialists?
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, and educate the rakyat on the host of anti-people policies of the BN government – the GST, the amendments to the labour law, the non-implementation of a minimum wage, the withdrawal of subsidies, the signing of the FTA, the privatisation of health care and education, and the use of draconian laws such as the ISA?
When rapacious developers want to flatten the homes of the poor in the name of development, these six have not stood idly by. When vegetable and livestock farmers are threatened with eviction, these six have defended the land along with the farmers.
They have been arrested many times and locked up and then released for defending people’s right to their homes and livelihood, and the right to greater social justice for 70 per cent of Malaysians.
The six, aged 25 to 57 – Babu, Chon Kai, Saras, Sugu, Letchu and Kumar – merely believe that the wealth of the country should be more equitably distributed so that every child can grow up to realise his/her potential, and not have his/her development held back by the lack of access to basic needs. They think it is not okay for the government to merely show in its statistics that the income of 34 per cent of Malaysian workers is below the poverty line.
What is the crime in all these?
When a government deems it politically expedient to lock up good men and women, it is high time we voted it out.
Fatimah Joseph, a kindergarten teacher, is a member of the Sg Siput PSM branch.