Yesterday, (June 14),five of the girls were ordered to be released on RM1,000 bond while a sixth for RM2,000 bond into the protective custody of their parents for a year.
It is significant that at the start of yesterday’s hearing at the Balik Pulau court, the magistrate, Sitarun Nisa Abdul Aziz said that it was not sitting to decide whether the detention of the girls was legal or otherwise.
"That is all in the past", she said, adding that the court’s purpose was to consider the reports of an inquiry into their case, conducted by the Social Welfare Services Department, and to decide whether they should be released from government protective custody.
It is clear that the six girls had been detained illegally and unlawfully, in the sense that the social welfare officers had abused their powers when they acted under Section 8(1) of the Women and Girls Protection Act 1973 meant to give protection to "any female person under the age of 21 years whom the Court of a Magistrate believes to have been ill-treated or neglected and exposed to moral danger and to need protection".
Can any of these six girls, by any stretch of the imagination, come within Section 8(1) of the Act, and can the social welfare officers present an acceptable case to any court that they are "ill-treated or neglected and exposed to moral danger and to need protection" - when their parents had given permission for them to attend the birthday party at the karaoke loufnge in the first instance?
If the social welfare officers cannot present such a case, and had misled the court to issue such an warrant to detain the girls, then the social welfare officers had abused their powers and the detention of the six girls was illegal and unlawful.
It is most unfortunate that the detention of the six girls had not been challenged in a court of law by way of a habeas corpus application by the parents, and I still cannot understand why the Penang Chief Minister or the Penang State Government had not advised the parents to institute legal proceedings to challenge the legality of the detentions.
I call on the Penang Chief Minister, Tan Sri Dr. Koh Tsu Koon to use his powers and discharge his responsibility as the head of the state government to protect the welfare of the people of Penang, in particular girls below 21 years, by convening a joint Federal-State Government conference to ensure that social welfare officers in Penang stop abusing their powers in the state.
The Penang Chief Minister should have the courage to call a spade a spade, inform the Minister for National Unity and Social Development that both the Penang state government and people cannot accept or tolerate the gross abuse of powers by the state welfare officers as shown by the case of the six girls in the karaoke lounge and demand a categorical assurance from the Minister that there would be no repeat of such incidents.
The DAP is prepared to assist and advise the Penang State Government to ensure that state welfare officers are not allowed to abuse their powers and misuse the Women and Girls Protection Act 1973 to create trouble for girls below 21 years when the law is meant to protect troubled girls as those forced into prostitution by pimps.
There have been calls for amendment of the Women and Girls Protection Act 1973 to stop such abuses of power by welfare officers. I do not think amendment to the Women and Girls Protection Act 1973 is the real answer, for I just cannot agree that the case of the six girls in the karaoke lounge to celebrate a girl’s birthday could come within Section 8(1) of the Act at all!
As the State Government has a State Exco member especially responsible for State Welfare and Caring Society, the State Government should let the people of Penang know what steps it proposes to take to protect girls below 21 years from abuses of power by state welfare officers.
I hope this item will be top on the agenda of the next State Exco meeting on Wednesday and that the Penang Chief Minister would make an important announcement of how abuses of power by state welfare officers would be put to a halt in Penang.