on the unjust detention of nathaniel tan

I’ve had a lesson in history-writing on the go, so to speak, as well as an instructive example of the difference between a chronicle and a history. A friend and acquaintance of mine was recently arrested without notification or going through proper legal procedures by the Malaysian police (yay Malaysia). Here’s an ongoing history (crossposted there).

A short chronicle:

Nat was detained incommunicado by the police at 4.30PM on 13 July 2007, his computer was confiscated, and he was not heard from until c. 11PM, when frantic efforts to locate him finally led his family and supporters to Dang Wangi prison complex.

No charges had been made, and the police had 24 hours to appear before a magistrate to obtain a remand.

The next day, according to Nat’s lawyer, sly and wholly unethical attempts were made by the police to slip Nat past his lawyers into the courtroom, so he would stand unrepresented before the magistrate for the remand proceedings.

Police obtained a 4 day remand (initially they had asked for 14 days — the maximum) to investigate Nat under the Section 8 of the Official Secrets Act, viz., “wrongful communication of an official secret”.

The offense centers around a post made by Nat on his blog, but it seems that wrath was incurred not over the post itself, but by a comment on the post, which linked to an anonymous website implicating Johari Baharum, Deputy Internal Security Minister in a series of corruption cases.

If found guilty under this act, Nat faces a minimum of 1 year to a maximum of 7 years sentence.


1. Altantuya. A Mongolian model was murdered and detonated (seriously) under highly suspicious circumstances involving figures very high up in the echelons of government. Opposition leader Tian Chua subsequently published a notorious and fabricated photomontage implicating such figures. There has been backlash both from the government and from Tian Chua’s own supporters for what is widely perceived to be a bit of a political faux pas. Tian Chua is currently being investigated for this.

2. Johari Baharum. Deputy Minister of Internal Security, who incurred Nat’s wrath by laying blame on the public, and particularly women who wear revealing clothing and carry expensive bags, for the continuing existence of snatch theft crime. Johari was also the focus of the anonymous website, which lists three cases of bribery and corruption allegedly involving the minister.

3. Nat – Nathaniel Tan – is a graduate from Harvard, and devotes his time to an NGO Foundation for the Future and as an aide to Tian Chua as well as Anwar, who is president of said NGO, and also a prominent figure of the Opposition party.

Conjectures and consequences:1. There’s a good deal of confusion regarding the motives of his arrest. Mention has been made of “intimidation tactics“. Nat is a fairly low-profile member of the opposition party (PKR) in Malaysia and many have conjectured that this is an attempt to make higher-profile figures in the opposition skittish, as well as to “send a message” and quell dissent in the blogosphere, which many government officials feel is getting out of hand. Some have also conjectured that the government is trying to get incriminating evidence on Tian Chua and his photomontage.

2. I rather think it may have to do with tracking down the commenter on Nat’s post. The website incriminating Johari in the corruption cases is anonymously owned and hosted on Freewebs. Tracking the person’s IP through Nat’s content management system (looks like it might be textpattern or movabletype or something) is entirely possible if they manage to compel him to disclose his password. From there, it may be possible to ascertain the location of the offending commenter, whose website, after all, is being investigated by the Commercial Crimes Investigation Department at the indignant behest of Johari himself. Perhaps they think Nat might have been in contact with the person, too, in which case emails might exist on Nat’s computer to this end.

3. Still, the police have demonstrated their colossal and laughable ineptitude by confiscating not only Nat’s laptop and computer, but also his monitor (a real tool of sedition, that).

4. The whole incident will enrage the burgeoning online demographic, and give the Opposition more ammunition against the ruling party. It potentially shifts the limelight away from Tian Chua, who was suffering quite a bit from the backlash from his somewhat wrongfooted photo montage, and gives him an opportunity to bounce back and regain political credence. It makes the government look bad. It emphasizes again our Prime Minister’s eye-wateringly ineffectual governance; to date he has not come out with a statement on this or on the Altantuya case. Where is the leadership? Badawi has lost control of the country; it is increasingly run by bandits. Also, it draws attention to the very website that’s irked Johari so much, and it draws the online community together through the heated interlinking that’s been taking place over Nat’s arrest. All counterproductive consequences, dear government.

This is fascinating for me, as a historian, to see a smallscale history unfolding, being written out with every passing minute, and to be able to try my hand at pinning the present down with chronicles (past) and conjectures (future). This is surely one of the many functions of a historian. Also, I’ve met Nat personally on several occasions, and there are few more immediately friendly and genial people I know; few so well-intentioned and idealistic. If someone like him is convicted, it will be the end of justice in a country toppling slowly into perdition. Thus, I’m optimistic that he’ll be released on Tuesday. Any other outcome would be unthinkable, farcical.


5 responses to “on the unjust detention of nathaniel tan

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