Assassination Puts Malaysian Politicians on Alert


by Yokesun Ching

The cold-blooded killing of a senior Malaysian politician and prominent member of the Indian community while his car was caught in a traffic jam during the first weekend in November 2000 sent shock waves through a country where violence against political figures is virtually unknown. Malaysian leaders have had the least protection in the region and Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad normally has had no more than one or two special branch officers inconspicuously accompanying him. All this led to Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's ruling coalition losing a crucial by-election in his home state, dealing a blow to the premier's political standing.

But this may change following the murder of Dr Joe Fernandez, 54, a member of the Kedah legislative assembly and deputy state chief of the Malaysian Indian Congress (MIC), the third largest party in the National Front coalition, which rules at the federal level and in all but two states. The dominant Government party is the United Malays National Organisation, which Dr Mahathir heads.

A wealthy physician, who owns and operates five clinics throughout Malaysia, Dr Fernandez was shot dead while his car was stopped in heavy traffic on the afternoon of November 4. He was driving home to Bukit Mertajam, in Penang, from his clinic in the Kedah town of Kulim. Police said two men on a motorcycle stopped alongside Dr Fernandez's car. The pillion rider alighted and fired three shots at the doctor with a .38 revolver. Two bullets struck him in the head while the third lodged in his right arm. The gunman then joined his accomplice and the two men sped away as dozens of people in cars or crossing the street watched in horror.

Kedah deputy police chief Abu Kassim Nor said Dr Fernandez was caught by surprise and "did not have a chance to react at all when the gunman approached him and opened fire". He said police had a brief description of the two men, one of whom was "a big size".

"We are trying to determine whether the big-sized gunman was a hired killer and also the motive of the murder," he said. He said robbery had been ruled out because Dr Fernandez's valuables had not been stolen. Dr Fernandez was talking on a mobile phone to a nurse at the clinic when he was shot. When she heard the sound of gunfire, she alerted his driver, U. Kumar, who rushed to the scene of the shooting, about a kilometre from the clinic, on a motorcycle. Mr Kumar said the doctor was still slumped in the driver's seat because nobody had "dared to go near to offer help".

Dr Mahathir said the killing was "something extraordinary". He said such incidents had occurred during the Emergency in the 1950s and 1960s, when communist insurgents were battling the government. But it was "not a norm in Malaysia" today. He was asked if the shooting of Dr Fernandez showed that security for elected representatives should be tightened.

"We have to study if there is a need for such security because we do not think the incident happened just because he is an assemblyman," he said. "Maybe there are other reasons."

Members of the Indian community said they could not imagine a motive for the murder. They said Dr Fernandez was a hard-working physician and assemblyman. MIC president S. Samy Vellu described Dr Fernandez as an up-and-coming party official who had been expected to take over the state leadership eventually. Analysts said Dr Fernandez's political background provided no obvious clue as to why he might be murdered, prompting speculation that the motive might have some link to his private medical practice.

Sectarian motives explored in politician's murder

Voters in the Kedah constituency of Lunas went to the polls on November 29 to elect a successor to assassinated state assemblyman Joe Fernandez amid speculation religion might have been a factor in his killing. The new theory on a possible motive had arisen following the introduction of religion, in addition to race, as an influence on voters in the by-election.

Politicians have not traditionally found themselves the targets of hired gunmen in modern Malaysia. Investigators therefore initially looked at the possibility of a business motive behind the killing. But now another avenue was being explored. In Lunas over the last few days before the by-election the Government's opponents had been circulating posters carrying a doctored photograph of National Front candidate S. Anthonysamy in a priest's robe wearing a necklace and crucifix. The candidate was an Indian and a Catholic, as was the man he was hoping to replace, but not a priest. The poster appeared to be aimed at persuading Malay voters not to vote for him.

Newspapers recalled that before his death, Dr Fernandez had been the subject of poison-pen letters accusing him of helping to convert Muslims to Christianity. His political associates dismissed the accusations, saying Dr Fernandez would never have involved himself in such a way in an issue that is of high sensitivity in Malaysia. But such smears could have led some Muslims to see Dr Fernandez as a threat to their religion, analysts said. The opposition denied any knowledge of the poster, saying it was a ploy to discredit their candidate, Saifuddin Nasution, a leading member of the National Justice Party (Keadilan).

If Keadilan and its ally in the Lunas battle, the Parti Islam se-Malaysia, did not play the religion card directly, they have had no hesitation in showing a racial bias. They rejected an Indian candidate put forward by the Democratic Action Party, another opposition party, and insisted on Mr Saifuddin, a Malay. They were hoping to win the by-election with the votes of Malays unwilling to support an Indian candidate and of Chinese disaffected with the National Front.

Malaysia Prime Minister's Coalition Loses Crucial By-Election

Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad's ruling coalition lost the crucial by-election in his home state on November 29, dealing a blow to the premier's political standing. The opposition Parti Keadilan Nasional (National Justice Party), which champions Mahathir's ousted former deputy, Anwar Ibrahim, won the by-election in northern Kedah, the national Bernama news agency said. It said Keadilan's Saifuddin Nasution Ismail beat S. Anthonysamy of Mahathir's Barisan Nasional (National Front) by 530 votes.

Keadilan is led by Anwar's wife Wan Azizah Wan Ismail. The result did not affect Mahathir's federal government but robbed his Barisan Nasional coalition of its two-thirds majority in Kedah's state assembly. Fallout from Mahathir's ouster of his one-time protege Anwar helped the opposition come to power in two of Malaysia's 13 states in general elections exactly one year before.

Sacked from office in 1998 and later jailed on sex and corruption charges he has denied, Anwar said he is a victim of conspiracy orchestrated by Mahathir. Mahathir, undertsandably, denied this.