Last month, Amnesty International published a report drawing attention to the fact that judicial caning in Malaysia has reached epidemic proportions. Since 2002, when the Immigration Act was amended to include corporal punishment, nearly 48,000 prisoners have been whipped in Malaysia.
It is a shocking reminder of the cruel, inhuman and degrading way we treat prisoners, particularly refugees and illegal migrants.
Caning or whipping is a horrendous form of punishment. Maximum force, with the cane travelling at speeds of up to 160kph, is applied. The whiplash of the cane (usually a piece of rattan about 1.09m long and 1.25cm thick that is soaked in water) literally takes the skin off the buttocks and then pounds the flesh into pulp. Skin disintegrates. Blood flows copiously.
The pain is so severe that victims often lose consciousness. And when they do, they are quickly revived by doctors so that punishment can continue.
How doctors can participate in this kind of abuse is beyond understanding.
Whipping leaves deep scars that take months to heal. It also leaves deep emotional and psychological wounds that mark the victims for the rest of their lives.
In 2007, a six-minute video of a drug trafficker being caned in Malaysia found its way onto the Internet. Those who think that caning is an acceptable form of punishment should take the trouble to view it.
I personally found it too disturbing to watch. It brought back memories of my late father’s treatment at the hands of the Kempeitai – the military police of the Imperial Japanese Army during the war years. My father was whipped so badly that he carried the scars on his back and buttocks to his grave some fifty years later.
That such horrific abuse is still being visited upon people today is mind-boggling.
And all this despite the fact that there is no evidence that caning is an effective deterrence. It simply panders to our baser instincts to inflict pain upon those who transgress.
Furthermore, such forms of corporal punishment are clearly against the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights which states that, “No one shall be subject to torture or to cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment”.
Malaysia has always been an ardent supporter of the UN and proudly sits on its Human Rights Council, yet we violate one of its most cherished principles. We lose the moral authority to speak on human rights issues when we ourselves don’t cherish and uphold them.
Some years ago, Malaysians joined the global outrage over the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. America was rightly condemned for behaving in such a cruel and callous manner. What does it now say of us when we are silent about something far worse that is taking place in our prisons on an almost daily basis?
What is even more egregious is that we visit such horrific punishment upon hapless refugees and illegal migrants as well.
Refugees from Myanmar, for example, flee in fear and desperation from well documented abuse, torture and death in their own land only to be further abused in Malaysia.
According to Amnesty International, more than 6,000 refugees are caned, up to 24 times each, every year!
This is morally reprehensible and a great blight upon our nation’s honour.
Of course, we are not the only ones to permit judicial caning. It is widely practised in Singapore and Brunei as well, courtesy of our common British colonial heritage. Caning is now increasingly considered a cheaper alternative to jailing offenders. Illegal migrants are whipped and then deported.
Not surprisingly, many countries seem to ignore this appalling abuse of their own citizens in Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei. If Australian, British or American citizens were similarly treated, there would be an international uproar, which explains why such punishment is rarely inflicted on them.
Our poorer Asian neighbours, on the other hand, remain silent largely because they fear antagonising us and jeopardising an important source of foreign income in the remittances that these migrant workers send home each month. For countries like the Philippines, Bangladesh and Nepal, for example, such remittances make a significant contribution to their economy.
Perhaps it is also because Asian governments tend to place a lower premium on human dignity.
Whatever the reason, shame on them for staying silent while their citizens are so harshly treated abroad.
Of course, Myanmar’s military rulers are not going to lose any sleep over the treatment of Karen, Kachin or Rohingya people abroad, but surely we become complicit in the injustice wreaked upon these people if they end up being abused and punished in Malaysia as well.
When asked about the leaked caning video in 2007, the Deputy Home Minister at the time said it was “no big deal”.
But it is a big deal when our nation inflicts such horrendous suffering upon prisoners, upon migrant workers and upon refugees. It tarnishes our image and invites international scorn.
And it is a big deal because we are better than that.
It’s time we end this barbaric form of punishment. Certainly, we should immediately stop the caning of refugees and illegal migrants.