Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

My Boss, Nathaniel Tan, Martyred by the Special Branch

Written by johnleemk on 10:29:41 am Jul 13, 2007.
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So, Nat, you've finally made it onto the front page of Malaysiakini! Hopefully this will be the big break our company needs in civil society and the political community, eh?

Oh, that's right. You can't read this right now because you're being held by the Special Branch in an undisclosed location (but probably the police headquarters in Bukit Aman, if the word of the plainclothes officers who took you is anything to go by).

But fortunately there are a lot of other people who can read this — the 10 million or so odd Malaysians with internet access, not to mention the hundreds of millions of people outside Malaysia who probably have better internet service than the crappy kind we have in the office.

So, if you can read this, enjoy your freedom, because people like Nat are the ones around the country, and around the world, suffering for it.

Of course, I sound a bit hyperbolic, so let me backtrack a little. Nat started a little company, JCB Networks (also called Just Networks informally), which specialises in communications. Nat himself is an aide to Tian Chua, the Information Chief of Parti Keadilan Rakyat (the People's Justice Party, which holds only one Parliamentary seat, despite winning over 10% of the popular vote in the last election thanks to gerrymandering).

Nat invited me to join his firm during my holidays while I wait for my university term to start, so I figured I had nothing to lose. I didn't count on this breaking out.

Some of the guys at the office are PKR honchos; but probably an equal number are politically neutral. Myself and the guy who was at the office when Nat got hauled away have made it clear to Nat repeatedly that we do not want to be involved in partisan politics.

We do work on some politically-related stuff — PKR is Just Networks' anchor client after all — but our work has also focused on the broader problems with the Malaysian nation. We have worked on a bulletin site for non-governmental organisations, and have a number of projects in the pipeline which bear little relation to PKR. Only today I helped set up a website for a Malaysian NGO with (as far as I know) no ties to PKR.

Now, why wasn't I in the office today when Nat got taken away? I have a tradition going back a couple of years of meeting with my secondary school friends every Friday for lunch. We gossip (yes, I freely admit that males are as prone to doing this as the fairer sex), perhaps play some games at a nearby cybercafe, and maybe have a round of basketball. I have a special dispensation from Nat to play truant from the office a little whenever the meet-up is on.

At the time Nat was detained, which was around 4.45PM Malaysian time, I was probably shooting some hoops at my old school's court. The first I heard of the arrest was about an hour later, when one of my colleagues, Bob, called to ask what happened at the office.

I assumed he was asking about the NGO website we set up, since Bob was responsible for helping transfer some content over to it, but after babbling a little about it, it became clear he didn't have that in mind. I was naturally surprised when he told me that Nat had been taken in.

When I got home around 7.30, I immediately went online to see the reaction and get my hands on more news about Nat's detention. I was not surprised to see a lot of alarmism — or, as it is known in the computer community, Fear, Uncertainty & Doubt (FUD) — about Nat being detained for questioning by the special branch (Malaysia's secret police).

Honestly, do you want to know why the police took Nathaniel Tan in, and held him incommunicado while refusing to disclose his whereabouts or whether they even arrested him? Do you want to know why there is a chance this Harvard graduate in his mid-20s will be tortured by the Royal Malaysian Police?

It is because this Fear, Uncertainty & Doubt is exactly what the government wants to spread. They have no good reason to take Nat in.

Nat is not a big fish. In local political parlance, he is a machai, a small fry. He has no information worth being interrogated for down at the federal police headquarters, and he is of little political value to anyone.

This is exactly why the Malaysian government wants to take him in. They want to send a message to the people who want to and can make a difference in our country and our society — BACK OFF.

The message is, "This could be you!" It seems to be seeping in, because despite the insistence of solidarity amongst those already in the anti-establishment, potential recruits for the cause of change will be deterred by this detention.

After all, it could have been me who was taken away. Or it could have been Eng Kiat, my colleague who was there when it all happened. It could have been any young person who devotes themselves to the cause of change in Malaysia, even if they are not politically involved.

But is capitulation our only option? Do we just quit and give up, and as some odd 100,000 Malaysians (about 70,000 of them Malay) have done in the last decade, quit the country and give up our citizenship?

No. There is, of course, the choice of challenging the establishment completely, and daring them to "come and get me!" But that is immature theatrics, something perhaps worth playing for those already in politics.

But those of us who want to get involved without being foolhardy or stepping into the murky political waters, there is something we can do. We can choose to make ourselves heard. We can choose to carry on with our lives while making a difference.

I was told by a person close to me that it might be better not to write about this incident, so as to avoid drawing unwanted attention to myself. That is exactly what the establishment would love to see.

The Barisan Nasional regime thrives on suppressing the dissemination of information, the spread of moderate viewpoints such as mine. It survives by playing those who want to make a difference off against one another.

The police cannot haul every blogger in Malaysia in. It cannot take away every member of a political party. It cannot jail everyone who tells their friends and family not to vote for Barisan Nasional.

It can, however, jail a few as examples, and hope everyone else shuts up. By shutting up, we are handing the government the victory they want. By speaking out and condemning this arbitrary and unjust move, we can achieve the critical mass we need to avoid detention. If I were the only fella' screaming blue murder, the government would probably take me in. But if I am one among the dozens who know Nat and the hundreds who support the cause of change in this country, how can the government arrest us all?

The legality of taking Nat in is something I am unsure about. I know that under English common law, the police must either make an arrest, or not detain at all. There is no such thing as detention for the sake of questioning.

Malaysia, however, has been particularly successful at perverting the institutions handed down to it by the British. I would not be surprised if the law here permits the police to take away anyone arbitrarily, hold them incommunicado, and refuse to disclose whether they even arrested the person in question.

I am not asking you to step completely out of your comfort zone to make a difference. Different people have different tolerance levels; I will not go out to the streets for the sake of change in my country, but I will wield the weapon that is mightier than the sword.

Every person can make a difference. If you can write, write something about this. Put it on your blog, mail it to your friends, or stick it on your room door.

When you talk to your friends, tell them about Nat, and the atrocity of having a government that can ride roughshod over its citizens' rights without a care in the world.

But more importantly, please spread the word about the cause Nat, I, and everyone involved in this are working for. We are not working for partisan politics — it is not our common goal. I am not a PKR supporter.

What we are working for is a better Malaysia, a changed Malaysia. A Malaysia where the schools are not nothing more than propaganda outlets. A Malaysia where the economy is not propped up by a government dependent on oil, and entrepreneurs are stifled by corruption and an interventionist state. A Malaysia where every Malaysian citizen, regardless of their class, race, or religion, knows they have the same opportunity as anyone else to head a world-class Malaysian corporation, or to be Prime Minister.

That is the goal we work towards. And if these are the objectives you share, then for Nat's sake, please join the cause in some way. Don't vote for the corrupt regime heading this country. Assert your rights as a citizen. Do more than just talk, and take action in some way. Even if it is only at the ballot box, word is that an election may be around the corner.

Please, make your vote count — make it so that the Malaysia of tomorrow is a Malaysia where we do not live in fear of the secret police knocking on the door, where every Malaysian has the same opportunities to be the best they can be, where Malaysia is truly a free and democratic society, instead of the horrid sham it is now.

Edit: As of 10:32PM Malaysian time, it appears that the Bukit Aman police headquarters have confirmed they are holding Nat.

2nd edit: As of 11:07PM, the Special Branch now deny they know anything about Nat's detention, and say he may be held by the Cyber Crimes unit, which is not in Bukit Aman.


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