DAP lodges another Suhakam report on second set of human rights violations in the government's mishandling of the worst dengue epidemic in the nation's history - the right to information and press freedom - which prevented the killer epidemic from being brought under control as happened in Singapore in November, causing a long list of unnecessary and avoidable deaths which have passed the century figure

Suhakam Report
by Lim Kit Siang

(Kuala Lumpur,  Thursday): Before the Chinese New Year holidays on 27th January 2003, together with other DAP leaders and MPs, I lodged an official report and complaint with Suhakam on the Health Ministry's flagrant, rampant and continuing violation of the most basic of all human rights - the right to life - as a result of its mishandling of the worst dengue epidemic in the nation's history which could have caused some one hundred dengue deaths and may be another 100 lives before the end of the epidemic.

We have come to Suhakam today to lodge a second set of human rights violations in the government's continued mishandling of the worst dengue epidemic in the nation's history, which is still raging on unchecked, unnoticed and the people still uninformed.

Let me preface our second human rights violations report to Suhakam with the stark reminder and warning that the gross violation of the most basic and fundamental of all human rights, the real mother of all human rights - the right to life - is proceeding apace with the rising toll of unnecessary and avoidable deaths from the killer dengue epidemic in the new year.

We had urged in our first report that Suhakam should immediately set up a high-level special committee, preferably headed by the Suhakam Chairman, Tan Sri Abu Talib Othman himself, comprising at least three Suhakam Commissioners to deal urgently with the continuing violation of the mother of all human rights - the right to life - more than six months after the World Health Organisation (WHO) warning last July to the region of a dengue pandemic on the scale of 1998, the worst recorded year for dengue for Malaysia and the region, and we would appreciate it if the Malaysian people could be informed of the Suhakam response to our first report.

In his speech when opening a seminar on Monday to commemorate the birthday centenary of Bapa Malaysia, Tunku Abdul Rahman Puta Al-haj, the Deputy Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi called on people to be "responsible, honest, sincere and have the courage to speak the truth" so that leaders especially those in top position would not be distanced from the truth and reality.

It is in this spirit of "the courage to speak the truth" that this further report to Suhakam on the second set of human rights violations in the worst dengue epidemic is being lodged.

1. Denial of Right to Information

The Sun of Thursday, January 30, 2003 carried the front-page headline "Dengue blackout - Ministry DG: Public need not know the details" for its report which quoted the Director-General of Health Tan Sri Mohamad Taha Ariff as declaring that "the public do not have the right to know the seriousness of the dengue outbreak" and that "it is not necessary for Malaysians to know any details" about incidence of dengue cases and dengue fatalities or whether Malaysia is suffering from the worst dengue epidemic in the nation's history and which is raging on unchecked, causing more and more unnecessary and avoidable deaths.

On the same day as our first report to Suhakam on the "right to life" violation, the Health Minsiterr, Datuk Chua Jui Meng commented that I had directed my fire on the unnecessary and avoidable death toll at the "wrong target", which was reported by the Nanyang Siang Pau the next day with the headline "No Need for Health Ministry to Bear Responsibility".

The Health Minister's short comment disclaiming responsibility was more damning than his long silence in the worst dengue epidemic in the nation's history. He neither disputed my figures, assumptions and arguments which I had made in my 25 media statements on the dengue epidemic in the previous 43 days, a collection of which had been submitted to Suhakam as an annexure to the first report.

Malaysia probably has the first Health Minister in the world to claim that his Ministry is not responsible at all for a deadly disease epidemic in the country, which is continuing to claim human lives while another country, threatened by a similar disease in the region, had successfully brought it under control within five months!

A check of the records would show that when the incidence of dengue was low, the Health Minister had no hesitation in claiming credit; but when there is a dengue epidemic as the present one raging out of control with ever-rising death toll, the Health Minister would wash his hands by trying to disclaim responsibility.

For instance, in April 2000, Chua announced that the number of dengue and dengue haemorrhagic cases in the country decreased by 62.3 per cent the previous year (1999) from 27,381 in 1998 to 9,947 cases - the biggest drop in 10 years - which also saw a drop in the number of deaths from 58 in 1998 to 27 in 1999. Chua attributed the success to the government's cleanliness and anti-mosquito campaign. (Utusan 14.4.2000)

But when the worst dengue epidemic hit Malaysia after the WHO warning last July, Chua refused to assume responsibility, denying Malaysians the most important and critical information about the incidence of dengue cases and deaths although all medical practitioners, laboratories and adult Malaysians are required by law under the Prevention and Control of Infectious Disease Act 1988 to notify the health authorities of any dengue case or guilty of an offence!

Up to now, the Health Ministry has refused to release the latest data of the dengue epidemic to the public, when there should be timely release of such information on at least a weekly basis!

The only information available from the Health director-general Tan Sri Dr. Mohamad Taha Ariff on 29th January 2003 was that the occurrence of dengue fever in the country had not reached epidemic level, and that the situation was not as serious as in 1998, "when more than 17,000 cases were reported" (Star), compromising his professional reputation and integrity for two reasons:

Firstly, based on reports from the Malaysian Government, various World Health Organisation (WHO) publications cited 1998 as the worst dengue year for the country until the current outbreak, with 27,379 cases and 58 deaths reported. Why was the Health Director-General claiming that there were only 17,000 dengue cases reported in 1998 (which would be lower than the 19,544 dengue cases reported in 1997), suggesting that the WHO figures had been wrong and that the Health Ministry had been misleading WHO all these years?

Secondly, in denying that there had been over 32,000 dengue cases reported last year, Dr. Mohamad Taha was contradicting the statement early last month by the Selangor State Exco member in charge of health, Datuk Tang See Hang who had released data on dengue outbreak nation-wide. with a state-by-state breakdown of the dengue cases and fatalities. The data showed that as of 14th December 2002, there were a total of 29,615 cases and 53 deaths. On 19th January, in the first of a three-part series on the dengue epidemic, Sin Chew Daily quoted official sources to report that as of December 28 last year, there were 32,289 dengue cases and 57 deaths. Was Datuk Mohamad Taha suggesting that both Tang See Hang and Sin Chew Daily were wrong and had misled the public with fictitious figures? If Tang and Sin Chew had given wrong figures, why had the Health Ministry failed to specifically correct their data?

In Singapore, which brought the feared dengue pandemic under control in November after increased incidence of dengue cases in August/September, the authorities released weekly figures of dengue and DHF cases as well as other infectious diseases, which were accessible on the Internet. We enclose as an annexure the weekly reports on the number of dengue/DHF cases issued in Singapore from the 27th week of last year to the fifth week of this year.

The death toll would not have been so high - I would not be surprised if the death toll was in three digits last year with at least 15 deaths in the first month of the new year - if Malaysians had not been denied the right to information about the worst dengue epidemic in the nation's history, which are necessary conditions for a nation-wide alert and awareness for a national government-community effort to combat the killer dengue epidemic.

Malaysia urgently needs a new information policy in keeping with a Knowledge Economy and Information Society to inform, enlighten and educate the people instead of current government practices to obstruct, obscure and obfuscate the free flow of information as in the virulent killer dengue epidemic.

2. Denial of Press Freedom to report the worst dengue epidemic

In the past few months, the various language newspapers, most notably Sin Chew Daily, Nanyang Siang Pau, Berita Harian and Malaysia Nanban Daily had been warned by the authorities when they tried to report about the dengue epidemic and stop the rising spate of unnecessary and avoidable deaths.

This is press control and censorship at its worst, when it has nothing to do with party politics whatsoever but entirely about life-and-death issues for the people in Malaysia.

The argument that reporting on the worst dengue epidemic in the nation's history would frighten away tourists is misplaced, short-sighted, counter-productive and the height of irresponsibility.

In the age of information technology, such media blackout may succeed in hiding the worst dengue epidemic from Malaysians but not from foreigners, as highlighted by the various travel advisories issued by foreign governments alerting their citizens about the dengue epidemic in Malaysia since last year. The media blackout only resulted in more unnecessary and avoidable deaths in Malaysia without protecting the national interests of promoting Malaysia as a safe tourist destination - whether from terrorists or the killer dengue-carrying Aedes aegypti mosquito.

I want to conclude by mentioning the two latest cases of dengue deaths in January 2003, bringing the total of dengue fatalities to my knowledge to at least 15 for the first month of the new year. In the first case, Maruthu Pandian, 37, from Rasah Jaya, Seremban, died of dengue in the Seremban General Hospital on 23rd January after three days of hospitalization. In the second case, Chai Moy Far, 21, (f) , student at Taylor's College, Kuala Lumpur, preparing for a medical twinning course, died of dengue in the Kuala Lumpur General Hospital on 31st January, 2003.

Timely action by Suhakam can not only promote and protect human rights but even more important, save lives.


* Lim Kit Siang, DAP National Chairman