Teoh’s death may raise ethnic unease

KUALA LUMPUR: The funeral of Teoh Beng Hock, an opposition official of Chinese descent who died after questioning by anti-graft officials, drew thousands of angry mourners on Monday, threatening to raise tensions in the country.

Teoh, an aide to a Democratic Action Party (DAP) legislator from the Pakatan Rakyat-run state of Selangor, was found dead on Thursday, having fallen from a 20-storey building not long after he was allegedly released from questioning by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC).

Many of the country’s opposition leaders attended the funeral in the central state of Malacca.

Mourners carried a red-lettered banner reading: “We want truth and an explanation.”

The death came as new Prime Minister Najib Razak had seen his approval ratings rise after opening up the economy and pushing an inclusive concept dubbed “1Malaysia” in a country where the majority of the 27 million population are Malays but where there are big Chinese and Indian minorities.

“This could potentially drag down support levels for the government and Najib, although at present it is limited to certain segments of society,” said Ibrahim Suffian, head of the independent Merdeka Center which conducted the polls.

Merdeka’s most recent poll showed that Najib’s approval ratings had surged to 65 per cent from 45 per cent in May, including a rise in support from ethnic Chinese voters to 48 per cent who said they were “satisfied” from 24 per cent in May.

“There is a public outcry for a Royal Commission and this must be called as soon as possible to calm public anxieties and concern,” said Tan Sri Ramon Navaratnam, an ex-head of the Malaysian branch of Transparency International and now an adviser to the MACC.

Teoh’s funeral was heavily covered by independent online news websites, many of which provide news that is not given by the state-run newspaper and television channels.

It comes at a time when Malaysia’s judiciary is under scrutiny as the country’s opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim has been charged with sodomy, something he denies.

“Final ceremony for Teoh Beng Hock’s last journey begins, grief, anger shroud ceremony, nation stands in shame,” wrote DAP veteran Lim Kit Siang in a twitter posting as he attended the funeral.

The MACC said that it picked up Teoh on Wednesday for questioning as a witness in a graft probe, but that he was released early the next morning.

He was found dead later the same day, having fallen from the building that housed the MACC offices.

Observers say the issue could develop into a political headache for Najib, who took over as premier in April from Abdullah Ahmad Badawi following the ruling Barisan Nasional’s disastrous showings in the March 2008 general election.

Barisan, which has ruled Malaysia uninterrupted for 51 years, lost its two-thirds parliament majority in the 2008, partly as a result of minorities supporting the opposition.

The authorities have promised an impartial investigation into Teoh’s death, but statements by another ethnic Chinese opposition supporter that he was subjected to racial insults by MACC officials have fuelled public anger.

A top editor at the Malay language newspaper Berita Minggu also stoked anger when on Sunday he wrote that the opposition attacks were possibly aimed at blackening the reputation of Malays, 55 per cent of the 27 million population.

“Don’t be persuaded by the talk of people whose agenda sometimes is to question the ability of the Malays,” Zainul Ariffin wrote in the pro-government newspaper.

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