Malaysian national flags in Kuala Lumpur. Photograph: Lai Seng Sin/AP
In the Hollywood film The Terminal Tom Hanks plays (with obligatory mangled foreign accent) a character who is trapped in New York's JFK airport. Last week, I had a similar experience at Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) in Malaysia. Whereas Tom Hanks's character spends years trapped, I was only there for a few hours. The episode was both humiliating and enlightening. I had been engaged by a Malaysian lawyer, Waytha Moorthy, to look into taking action against the British government for its role in the exploitation of Indian Hindus during Malaysia's period as a colony, and its failure to protect their rights when independence was declared in 1957.
Ethnic Indians make up just over 6% of Malaysia's 28.3 million people, while Muslim Malays account for just over 61% and ethnic Chinese some 25%. A coalition led by the United Malays National Organisation has ruled since independence, which, according to Moorthy, had led to widespread human rights violations and discrimination of the Indian Malaysian population. About 70% live in abject poverty and one in six are effectively stateless as they are denied a birth certificate. Moorthy originally lodged his action on the 31 August 2007, the 50th anniversary of Malaysia's independence.
However, the claim stalled following the arrest of the lawyers involved under a draconian piece of legislation called the Internal Security Act. Moorthy had demanded compensation for Indian Malaysians whose ancestors were brought in by the British government as indentured labour. The claim was that, after granting independence, the British had left the Indians without representation and at the mercy of the Malays.
So, the plan was to visit Malaysia and gather evidence and claims that would form the foundation of the case. A recent case involving individuals tortured by British soldiers in colonial Kenya gave fresh impetus to the proceedings. My pending arrival in Malaysia had receivedadvance publicity from local police who had sought to intimidate organisers of the venue where I was expected to meet potential claimants. There was, therefore, some trepidation when I presented myself to the immigration desk on arrival at KLIA.
As soon as my passport was handed over at the immigration desk, the slow cogs of government bureaucracy moved into action. Without explanation I was taken to the immigration office. KLIA is an impressive building; made of polished steel and glass it has a central hub with four long offshoots. It is populated by the ubiquitous outlets that make most airports seem identical. However,, the immigration office was a more spartan affair. Teams of immigration officers sat behind desks shouting the names of those refused entry to come forward and explain their reasons for trying to enter.
Handing my passport over to one of them I noticed the large sign on the back wall of the office – "Service with a smile" it said. True to their motto a pleasant immigration officer smiled while she told me that I had been refused entry. I asked for an explanation and was told that the immigration department had no problem with me – the decision to refuse me entry had come from the very top. I asked for written reasons. The officer agreed that I should be given them but none were given. It was not until I was in transit in Dubai that I found out that I had been classed as a "prohibited immigrant".
I still have no idea what that means and despite the involvement of the British consulate and the British government cabinet office, I found myself stranded, waiting for my return flight. It was clear that the decision was a political one – I had been refused entry to stop me doing work that the government of Malaysia did not want to take place. Thousands were expected to attend meetings that had been organised. I was to see the ways in which government policies had affected the lives of Indian Malaysians in all parts of the country. Yet, like many governments which seek to stifle opposition, its actions are often irrational because, while refusing me entry into the country, it had allowed my colleague who had been travelling with me to do so. He is now meeting all those potential claimants and collecting evidence to progress the claim.
Meanwhile, sitting in the immigration office at KLIA gave me a glimpse of how differently people are treated in Malaysia. Sitting beside me awaiting interrogation were men – predominantly young, on their own and originating from Pakistan, India or sub-Saharan Africa. They would be summoned to their meeting with an immigration officer via an intermediary – always a Malaysian of Chinese origin wearing a coloured paper bracelet to signify that he had clearance to come into the airport. He would order his charge in terms which reminded me of a master/servant relationship – a click of the fingers, a terse command, the use of their surname only. These men appeared to be workers entering the country through the patronage of their Chinese bosses. It didn't take much imagination to work out how they would be treated once they left the airport terminal.
These were the lucky ones. Those sharing my predicament were marched off to a detention centre before being sent back to their country of origin. Thankfully, I was told that I had been spared such a fate. Nevertheless, the experience was a humiliating one. Without a passport or able to leave the terminal I could not check in; I was escorted to the aircraft to be seated; my passport was handed over to the aircraft crew who viewed me with suspicion and contempt.
I have often thought that lawyers, as well as doctors, should consider what it is like to be in their clients' position so that it can inform their approach. This was one occasion when I truly felt what it must be like for detainees all over the world – coming up against foreign jurisdiction; facing a decision which may be wrong and unjust; being treated without dignity; occupying a twilight world of ever-changing time zones and feeling utterly powerless.
Having returned to the UK, I am even more determined to ensure that the issues raised by the case are highlighted beyond the borders of Malaysia. Like many in Britain, I had only thought of Malaysia as the country advertised in brochures. Every day, buses pass my office window in central London emblazoned with adverts encouraging us to visit Malaysia, illustrated with montages of sun and sea. Few people are likely look beyond that image or get to see the reality that exists underneath. For me, a country that, on the face of it, is engaged in widespread, institutional discrimination and human rights abuses should rightly be condemned. Even more so when it refuses its citizens access to legal representation.