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    Southeast Asia
     May 10, 2006
Malaysian water a matter of life and death
By Anil Netto

PENANG, Malaysia - Malaysia's contentious drive to privatize and protect its water resources has taken a drastic turn: the death penalty for serious cases of water contamination.

A new Water Services Industry bill is one of two water-related bills due for a second reading in parliament this week, which seeks to pave the way for privatization and revamp of the way water resources are managed across the country by transferring control of state and private water authorities to a single federal regulatory body.

But the bill also provides for capital punishment for serious cases of water contamination that endangers lives or causes death. The

death penalty could also arbitrarily apply to those who contaminate the water supply with any substance that would "likely" endanger lives.

Opponents of the proposed law, who contend the rules are draconian and unworkable, claim that the legislation does not address the real causes of water pollution.

"Most of the time, the real offenders are likely to be companies, and you can't hang the companies," said Charles Hector, a human-rights lawyer. "So who would face the death penalty then - the chairman of the board? All the directors? The general manager? The administrative officer? It's absurd."

More than half the rivers in Malaysia are polluted by raw or partially treated sewage as well as industrial effluents, agricultural runoffs, waste from animal husbandry and land development, and municipal rubbish.

These contaminants, independent studies have found, often pollute sources of drinking water. After a flood in February, residents around Kuala Lumpur complained of smelly water coming from their taps. A common complaint at other times is of murky water in parts of the country. However, there are seldom official investigations into such complaints.

The soaring costs of maintaining the rivers prompted the government of the state of Selangor to announce in February that it would privatize the rights to three key rivers, whereby private-sector concerns would be tasked with ensuring their cleanliness. However, it remains unclear how much leverage the bid-winners will have over the powerful corporate interests responsible for most pollution.

Significantly, the new water bills are being tabled at a time when the private sector is eyeing a larger stake in water treatment, supply and distribution.

Top officials at the Energy, Water and Telecommunications Ministry could not be reached for comment about the exact motivation behind legislating the death penalty for water polluters.

Some speculate the legislation could have an unspoken dual purpose - aimed at forestalling possible terrorist attacks on the domestic water supply or water exports to neighboring Singapore. A foiled 2001 plot against Singapore included terrorist plans to contaminate the island state's water supplies, among other acts of destruction. Malaysia provides a large quantity of Singapore's water supplies.

Among the proposed amendments to Malaysia's codes is the provision for the death penalty for any act of terrorism involving the "release of poisonous substances into the environment", according to a parliamentarian familiar with the draft. "I think the death penalty was included because they had terrorists in mind" who might deliberately contaminate water sources, opposition parliamentarian Teresa Kok said.

By including the death penalty in the bill, Malaysia is bucking a regional and global trend toward less use of capital punishment. Last month, for instance, the Philippines commuted the death sentence against all condemned convicts. Malaysia is one of 74 countries where the death penalty is still allowed, while 123 countries have abolished capital punishment.

In Malaysia, however, the death penalty remains mandatory for drug possession and trafficking, murder, certain firearms offenses and offenses against the king. Of 52 people sentenced to death from 2004 until July 2005, 36 were convicted for drug offenses. Last December, Deputy Internal Security Minister Chia Kwang Chye said that from 1960 through last October, 434 convicts were hanged, while 172 cases were pending appeal.

Parliamentarian Kok, however, is under no illusions that it will be easy to abolish capital punishment. She was a member of a parliamentary select committee, made up predominantly of ruling-coalition members, that traveled the country in 2004 seeking public views on proposed amendments to the penal code and criminal procedure code, which will be brought to parliament on Thursday.

During the hearings, she said, she got the impression that public sentiment was still in favor of the death penalty. "The problem is that many among the public still want the death penalty in cases where the victim loses his or her life."

While public opinion is still in favor of capital punishment, the legal establishment is fighting back. An unprecedented resolution opposing the death penalty by the Malaysian Bar Council, the governing body for the country's 12,000 lawyers, in March passed a resolution by a 105-2 vote calling for the abolishment of the death penalty and a moratorium on all executions.

(Inter Press Service with additional reporting by Asia Times Online)

Private sector still running after water rights (Mar 26, '05)

The privatization wave (Feb 12, '05)

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