The four-year-wait for the verdict on the killing of National Defence University of Malaysia (UPNM) cadet Zulfarhan Osman Zulkarnain is all but over.
The 18-year prison sentence given to the six accused of causing his death and the three-year prison sentence for the 12 accused of causing him grievous harm have been met with mixed reactions – understandably so, given the nature and context of the case.
The Attorney General’s Chambers has announced it will appeal against the High Court verdict and will seek to restore the original charge of murder against the six students under Section 302 of the Penal Code.
Hence, the legal processes are still ongoing and should not be speculated upon.
Our concern really should be with the wider circumstances surrounding the killing, especially over the safety and sanctity of Malaysian university campuses and their staff and students.
Indeed, why and how such a crime could have taken place in such a purportedly highly disciplined and controlled environment is puzzling and worrying.
This must be addressed to enable us to prevent such tragic circumstances from recurring. What this young cadet went through must never be repeated, in UPNM or elsewhere.
Judging from the events that took place and the questions arising, the following ought to be fully scrutinised:
- The tragic events leading to Zulfarhan’s death took place within the UPNM campus and under its watch. It is odd that the whole incident – which took place over a few days – could have escaped the attention of the warden on duty and other students in the dorm
- Given that UPNM is a military university under the wings of the Ministry of Defence, is it not possible that it has in place a strict out-of-campus movement reporting procedure? If so, the fact that these cadets could get in and out of campus and remain outside overnight raises questions whether (a) such rules exist and, if so, (b) whether these rules and procedures were – are – implemented and enforced by the university?
- Like all Malaysian public and private universities, UPNM surely must have a strict attendance policy for its academic classes? How the cadets’ long absences from classes escaped the notice of their lecturers thus must raise questions about the implementation and enforcement of this policy
In his response to the incident as reported by Free Malaysia Today on 18 June 2017, the then defence minister, Hishamuddin Hussein, stated that this incident should serve as a lesson for UPNM and the armed forces, and should never be allowed to recur.
In the same statement, he announced that the Ministry of Defence was “looking into the need to review the present system at UPNM”.
He was also quoted as saying, “I’m serious. I want to see UPNM and our naval training academy take responsibility (for Zulfarhan’s death)…. They (UPNM) can’t wash their hands off this case, and the student’s death won’t be in vain.”
Now that the dust has all but settled on this tragic case, it is about time that the defence minister revisits this pledge and gets to the bottom of the issue.
It is evident that both the academic as well as the military branch of the university have some questions to answer – answers which they surely must have after over four years of self-reflection.
Indeed, in her submission to rebut the defence request for a lenient sentence, the deputy public prosecutor pointed out that the accused cadets had the opportunity to stop the torture but decided not to. She attributed this to the cultural influence prevailing at the university.
She was quoted as saying, “I would like to also highlight this culture that has been mentioned by all of the accused. Are we condoning this kind of culture, are we condoning these cadets in becoming soldiers of this particular nation, to protect this nation?”
This cultural, this environmental aspect surrounding the act must be investigated.
Clearly, an independent inquiry, jointly established by both the Ministry of Defence and the Ministry of Higher Education, would be necessary to carry out such a task.
Having the 18 accused cadets being punished for the offence they committed is merely addressing the sad outcome of a potential disease. Its root causes, cultural or administrative, must be examined and remedies proposed and put in place.
To quote World War Two war hero Field Marshall William Slim, in the army “there are no bad soldiers, but only bad officers”.
Perhaps it is time for us to know who are the bad officers who mould these bad cadets and to replace them and the culture they condone with humane leaders.
We need leaders who understand that the university environment, whether civil or military, is meant to foster camaraderie, collegiality and a thirst for knowledge – not violence, hatred, or a toxic and pathetic sense of machismo.Rom Nain
Co-editor, Aliran newsletter
16 November 2021