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.
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 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?
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
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
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
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.
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.
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."
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.
Press Service with additional reporting by Asia