Our response to criticisms of our statement on police and lockup deaths
Updated: Jun 15
On 10 June 2020, we issued a statement titled “In Malaysia, police are NOT more likely to abuse Indians” (link).
In our statement, we challenged the use of data by two authors who write for the popular media.
Just as we expected, we have been accused of parroting the police line. In this statement, we offer comments to address the concerns raised.
1. In courts, we accuse the police of conducting and condoning acts and omissions which lead to deaths in custody. Therefore, our criteria for choosing data and statistics is “will this stand up in court?” If we believe any data shows that people die in lockups because they are Indians, we will rush to say so in courts and get judges to sanction our conclusions. Such data will help us reduce deaths in lockups from 16 per year to zero. There is no such data.
2. Our statement was sparked by our belief that it is wrong and counter-productive to make false accusations. The two authors led readers to believe that “being Indian” is a cause of being abused in lockups. These are the key numbers they used to make their claim:
a) 23%, the incidence rate for Indian deaths in lockups in the period 2010-16, derived from a 2017 Parliament response.
b) 7%, the population proportion of Indians in Malaysia, as reported in the 2010 census.
c) The ratio 23%:7%.
d) 55%, the alleged incidence rate for Indian deaths in lockups, attributed to media monitoring by Suaram (Suara Rakyat Malaysia). One of the authors, a reporter, said his personal estimate for this rate is 80%.
3. The authors claimed that because 23% is much larger than 7%, Indians are targeted in lockups. We argued that to support the claim, the 23% must be compared with the percent of Indians in lockups – a statistic which is not in the public domain. We believe if the right comparator is used, the comparison will NOT support the claim “Indians are targeted in lockups.”
4. We titled our statement “In Malaysia, police are NOT more likely to abuse Indians.” Perhaps we should have added “in lockups” – though only a wilfully blind reader would miss the context after reading our statement. Yet, we are glad our shortened title has flushed out those who cannot see the wood for the trees.
5. We wrote “16 persons die in Malaysian police lockups each year. That’s the problem which needs to be addressed.” We wrote “The truth is, police misconduct is race-blind in Malaysia. The response to George Floyd’s death should be a response to police brutality, NOT a response to (alleged) discrimination against Indians.”
6. We wrote as we did because we believe the proportion of Indians in lockups is much higher than 23%. Our belief springs from:
a) Observations made by lawyers during their frequent visits to courts and prisons and
b) Data in the Malaysian Indian Bluebook, 2017, published by the Prime Ministers Department.
7. We now respond to an article by Suaram’s Documentation and Monitoring Coordinator, published in Malaysiakini with the headline “No need for nitpicking over custodial deaths” (link). The article introduces itself as a “minor intervention” in the recent use of Suaram’s data. It does not mention EDICT. It does not include any quotes from EDICT’s statement. However, almost all of what it rebuts can be traced to EDICT’s statement.
8. Remarkably, the article does not mention the key numbers in the debate: 23% and 55%. It does not repudiate the false comparison (23%:7%). It does not reject the attribution to Suaram of the 55% incidence rate for Indian deaths.
9. Happily, it agrees that there is no data on “the representation of Indians in police detention.”
10. It includes a table of data from Suaram’s 2018 Malaysia Human Rights Report. The article treats the table as a summary of data from media monitoring by Suaram. It also includes an extract from a Parliamentary reply. It makes two principal comparisons:
a) For 2011-18, media monitoring recorded 99 deaths in lockups while the corresponding figure from Parliament is 109 deaths.
b) From this, it derives the incidence rate for Indian deaths in lockups: 31.3% (Suaram) and 28.4% (Parliament).
11. We offer the following comments not to nitpick, but to disprove some claims in the article which have led some to label EDICT as “not credible”:
a) One cell in the table (row 2016) includes a footnote, #88. Review of the footnote shows that in fact media-monitoring recorded 86 deaths, NOT 99 as represented in the table.
b) If we assume the government does not falsify data, we would expect media monitoring to report smaller numbers of deaths – because not all deaths are reported in the media.
c) We are not aware of any credible evidence that the government falsifies data, though we know the data does contain errors. For example in 2017, 10 deaths were reported by monitoring, but only 8 deaths were reported in Parliament.
d) In 2016, media monitoring recorded only 2 deaths in lockups, both Malays; but 15 deaths were reported in Parliament. This is strong evidence of a weakness inherent to media monitoring. (Media monitoring is necessary but must be used with care.)
e) The article calculates the Indian statistic as 31.3% (Suaram) and 28.4% (Parliament). It calls the difference “relatively low.”
f) We made the corrections warranted by footnote #88 and recalculated the Indian statistic as 36% (Suaram) and 24% (Parliament). Clearly the difference is not “relatively low.”
g) The large difference shows the opposite of what the article claims. It shows that Indians may be more likely to express their grief publicly and therefore Indian deaths may be more likely to be reported – as we had suggested. Note: results will differ if a different period is selected for review.
h) We have said enough. We will not offer further critique, as we do not wish to disparage the work of fellow activists.
12. We have committed our lives to ending deaths and abuse in custody. We embrace everyone who shares our goal. We welcome and urge people to write and speak about deaths and abuse in custody. But we insist that they be true to the data and resist the urge to make it a numbers game, twisting deaths in custody data to prop up claims about who in Malaysia are like “blacks in the USA.”
13. We do believe Indians and aboriginal peoples in Malaysia can legitimately claim they are treated somewhat similarly to blacks in the USA. We do not believe death in custody data shows Indians are especially targeted in Malaysian lockups. We believe the data shows there is an unacceptable risk of abuse in lockups, and the risk does not vary according to ethnicity.
14. Our time is better spent walking with the families of victims, pursuing justice using their cases as vehicles and carefully using data to press police and politicians to implement reforms.
15. We invite our detractors to come to court hearings, sit empathetically with family and friends of victims, read court transcripts and learn to read beyond headlines.
EDICT 13 June 2020