Like many other countries around the world, Malaysia is bracing itself for the ominous prospect of another coronavirus wave. Up to the week starting April 10, new reported cases had been steadily falling and the nation was preparing to literally breathe a bit more easily in the run-up to the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
However, as people do mingle more freely during the upswing period in the cycle of pandemics, so the caseload rises steadily — even though the government has begun its national vaccination program, in which it claims more than 600,000 people have been inoculated.
While the government has promised no more nationwide lockdowns, it is still quarantining districts across the country on a regular as localised case numbers spike.
One serious underlying problem with a strict lockdown is the issue of domestic abuse, including physical, sexual and psychological attacks. This is not a problem unique to Malaysia, almost every country worldwide that has entered one form of lockdown or another has reported a similar phenomenon since the pandemic struck some 15 months or so ago.
Yet, Malaysia is at best hopelessly ill-equipped to deal with problems associated with the issue. At worst, it just wants to sweep the problem under the carpet and hope it goes away.
A year ago, helplines in countries with support systems in place were already reporting spikes in calls for help, coupled with an associated rise in calls to the emergency services for assistance.
Yet, according to the Malaysian government, everything here was just fine and dandy. This nation is, after all, a ‘melting pot of cultures’ full of harmonious people, joyfully led by benevolent leaders.
Some corners of government actually boasted of an expected baby boom, as husbands and wives could blissfully enjoy the added time at home together.
The reality has been far from this utopian society the government is often at pains to project to the outside world.
Women, Family and Community Development Minister Rina Harun was subject to a combined backlash of criticism and mockery worldwide after releasing a poster on how women should behave with their husbands when trying to get them to do simple household chores.
As 2020 wore on, the seriousness of this underlying pandemic was generally forgotten as Malaysians once again became consumed with national politics and the celebrity status lawmakers enjoy here.
It was not until the start of 2021 that the words ‘domestic abuse’ appeared again in the national headlines, as the northern state of Penang released its annual figures, showing a marked increase in cases — calls to the police were up 70 percent, while calls to helplines had almost tripled.
While nationwide figures have been released — Rina was grilled by an opposition MP in Parliament on the subject — this did not include any direct year-on-year comparisons.
Therein lies of the inherent obstacles Malaysia faces — one that has plagued the nation since it gained independence from the UK in 1957 — the lack of transparency from central government.
Malaysia is back under control of an authoritarian administration, after a brief two-year reign by the more transparent and liberal opposition coalition. Answering to the people is not this government’s strong suit, so when it is put on the spot numbers are often fudged, fiddled, lost or just conjured up out of thin air.
So, while states like Penang and Selangor — which at local level are governed by the opposition — report domestic abuse statistics and expect to be held to account, states governed by Islamist party PAS or Malay nationalist party Umno are unlikely to keep any records whatsoever, let alone release them to the public.
In situations like this, the best sources of information are usually nationally run civil society groups, even if their coverage is not comprehensive.
The numbers again show a nationwide pattern with figures from the Women’s Aid Organisation indicating that by mid-2020, calls for help had more than tripled. Another group reported a four-fold increase in cases of elder relatives reporting abuse.
Yet, the government continued to act as if nothing was wrong. Indeed, Rina again stoked the fires of controversy when — in an attempt to celebrate her recent body transformation — she held a fashion show in her office, while Chinese families were prevented from spending the lunar new year together.
It wasn’t until a man was arrested for killing his wife that the government finally had to admit there was a problem — a problem that can apparently be solved by karate, according to Heng Seai Kie, the head of the women’s wing for the Malaysian Chinese Association, a token party in the government coalition.
She caused a stink early last month by suggesting battered wives should learn martial arts and fight back “with full force”.
Critics rained scorn on Heng, who they quite rightly pointed out demonstrated her complete ignorance of the issue, not least violence begets violence.
It is a sad fact of Malaysian society that only now — after so many attempts to ignore the problem or horribly crass comments from lawmakers whose only interest is their own — that the government is beginning to acknowledge a problem.
Yet, if Rina is to be believed, the government has always known about domestic abuse. It is the victims who just won’t come forward or accept its benevolent hand of assistance.
In a recent speech, said abused wives need to take advantage of hotlines, shelters and general support that have always been available to women nationwide, who must overcome any sense of shame they might be feeling in seeking help.
According to Rina, Malaysian women may feel culturally obligated to keep quiet and submit to any hostility coming their way. She is correct to a point, but her words demonstrate a typically flippant-then-abstruse approach to a systemic social problem.
Shame is one thing but a slap in the face from Malaysian government bureaucracy is another. The supposed support she mentions is a page on the website of the Malaysian Administrative Modernisation and Management Planning Unit — a nice friendly, welcoming name in a time of crisis, if ever there was one — which displays the act of Parliament covering domestic abuse and a hyperlink to an application form, so you can apply in writing for assistance.
Such an example of cold, unfeeling bureaucracy is probably the last thing a terrified victim wants to encounter when seeking help. It is also a likely reason why Rina’s much vaunted support structure is so underutilised.
Coupled with which, the statistics office actually reported a decline in the national birth rate for 2020, cementing the commonly held perception that, when locked up for long periods of time husbands plus wives do not equal babies and busting the baby boom boast.
While domestic abuse is an open wound to which any government has to tend, in Malaysia it is just another a deep-rooted social problem that the government continues to ignore in the hope, that by doing so, it will just go away.
Gareth Corsi is a freelance journalist based in Malaysia. The views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial stance of LiCAS.news.