Missing in Malaysia

Pastor Raymond Koh and his wife Susanna Liew. He was abducted from his car in broad daylight from a Selangor suburb on Feb 13. Above: Pastor Raymond Koh's white car was caught on CCTV being surrounded by three black SUVs on Feb 13 - the day of his ab
Pastor Raymond Koh and his wife Susanna Liew. He was abducted from his car in broad daylight from a Selangor suburb on Feb 13. PHOTO: PASTOR RAYMOND KOH'S FAMILY
Pastor Raymond Koh and his wife Susanna Liew. He was abducted from his car in broad daylight from a Selangor suburb on Feb 13. Above: Pastor Raymond Koh's white car was caught on CCTV being surrounded by three black SUVs on Feb 13 - the day of his ab
Pastor Raymond Koh's white car was caught on CCTV being surrounded by three black SUVs on Feb 13 - the day of his abduction. PHOTO: YOUTUBE
Pastor Raymond Koh and his wife Susanna Liew. He was abducted from his car in broad daylight from a Selangor suburb on Feb 13. Above: Pastor Raymond Koh's white car was caught on CCTV being surrounded by three black SUVs on Feb 13 - the day of his ab
A prayer service for Pastor Raymond Koh taking place at Sungai Way-Subang Methodist Centre on April 4. Police still have no leads on his whereabouts.PHOTO: SHERYLL STOTHARD

Disappearances of five people, including three pastors, spark fears of religious vigilantism

On Feb 13, Pastor Raymond Koh was abducted from his car in broad daylight from a Selangor suburb in a precisely coordinated operation involving three black SUVs, two cars, two motorcycles and at least 15 individuals, some wearing ski masks.

More than two months on, Malaysian police have no leads on his whereabouts. Four other cases of missing persons, bearing similar traits, have come to light since.

Social activist Peter Chong went missing last week, after attending prayer meetings and vigils for Mr Koh. Last November, Perlis Hope charity founder Amri Che Mat was taken from his car after it was blocked by other vehicles, his wife claimed.

Another pastor, Joshua Hilmy, and his wife Ruth, also a pastor, have been missing from their home in Petaling Jaya since late last year.

The authorities are refusing to classify any of these cases as kidnappings because no ransom demand has been made.

  • NOT FOUND

  • PETER CHONG, 54

    SOCIAL, RELIGIOUS AND POLITICAL ACTIVIST

    Last seen: April 5, 2017

    The former Petaling Jaya city councillor was also an assistant to an opposition MP. In a March 31 Facebook posting, the activist described how a stranger on a motorcycle told him to be careful as "nowadays a lot of people have suddenly disappeared". Police say he was spotted crossing into Thailand on April 7.


    RAYMOND KOH, 62

    PASTOR

    Last seen: Feb 13, 2017

    He started Harapan Komuniti (Community Hope) in 2004 to help single mothers, drug addicts and Aids victims of all faiths. In 2011, he received death threats, including bullets by post, after the Selangor religious authorities raided Harapan Komuniti's fund-raising dinner over suspicions that it was proselytising Muslims.



    JOSHUA HILMY, 50, AND WIFE RUTH, 50

    PASTORS

    Last seen: Nov 30, 2016

    They were last seen in November but a police report was lodged only last month over their prolonged absence. Little is known about Mr Hilmy but his social media accounts show he was a former Muslim who married his wife abroad. Police claim they are unable to make progress on his disappearance due to a lack of information as the complainant did not know Mr Hilmy's address, car plate, or even phone number.



    AMRI CHE MAT, 43

    FOREX TRADER AND CHARITY WORKER

    Last seen: Nov 25, 2016

    His Toyota Fortuner SUV was found with its left, right and rear windows smashed in November. Colleagues say the Perlis Hope charity he founded in October 2015 was accused of spreading Shi'ite teachings by the state's religious authorities. Perlis Hope has enlisted as many as 1,000 volunteers of various races, and has progressed from handing out rice to poor families, to building homes for them.

Only Mr Koh's disappearance has been classified as an abduction, while the others are merely "missing persons".

This has led to speculation that there are others like Mr Koh who are missing and possibly victims of religious vigilantism.

CCTV footage, allegedly from houses close to where Mr Koh's abduction took place, shows his car being trapped by the three SUVs, while shattered glass and his vehicle's licence plate were later found at the scene.

"We have no clues, nothing. There is no info, which I think is scary. Speculation will continue if nothing is being said," Selangor Speaker Hannah Yeoh told The Sunday Times.

Ms Yeoh, like four of those missing, is a Christian and a resident in Selangor, a state which has seen more than its fair share of disputes between Muslims and Christians.

These include a raid in 2011 on Damansara Utama Methodist Church for alleged proselytising, seizure of Malay-language Bibles in 2014, and a protest in 2015 that forced a church in Taman Medan to remove a cross from its building facade.

CONVERSION CLAIMS

Police are investigating claims that Mr Koh and three others were converting Muslims in the northern state of Perlis, an offence punishable by imprisonment in Muslim- majority Malaysia.

Religion seems to be the common thread linking these disappearances. Pastor Joshua Hilmy is himself a Christian convert from Islam, and was once detained under the now-repealed Internal Security Act. Meanwhile, Mr Amri, 43, is said to have been spreading Shi'ite beliefs, considered deviant by the Islamic authorities in Sunni-majority Malaysia.

Speaking to the BBC, Mr Koh's son Jonathan said his father "would never ask anyone to leave Islam. His alleged proselytism is not an excuse for kidnapping. If he did anything wrong, he should have the right as any citizen to trial".

Malaysia does not officially bar Muslims from leaving the faith of their own volition. However, syariah courts usually force them to attend rehabilitation camps instead of validating their conversions. Most Islamic bodies frown on apostasy and many have called for it to be barred outright as they consider it an insult to the religion.

SUSPICIOUS SILENCE

At an April 4 candlelight vigil for Mr Koh, who turned to "secular charity work" in 2004, his wife Susanna told several hundred supporters that "after 50 days of silence, does anyone question why I am crying for answers? For justice".

Sources with knowledge of the case told The Sunday Times that police have access to more than just CCTV footage from the surrounding homes.

There are eyewitnesses as well as videos from the toll booths of a nearby highway.

"You would be able to clearly tell the registration plates of the vehicles and faces of the suspects unless the windscreens were tinted or they were all disguised," a source said.

Yet, police have said little beyond stating that they are exploring whether Mr Koh had personal issues, whether he was kidnapped for ransom - even though none has been demanded - and whether extremist groups were involved.

Even less is known about the other cases, except for that of Mr Chong. Inspector-General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar said Mr Chong was spotted crossing the Thai border in a bus on April 7, two days after his family last saw him, and suggested the former municipal councillor was running away from debtors.

Council of Churches of Malaysia general secretary Hermen Shastri said he had met Mr Chong, 54, a week before his disappearance and he had "not shown any evidence of distress as he was excited about wanting to gather young people for an event".

SPECULATION FILLS THE VACUUM

The lack of credible information has led to a plethora of rumours and speculation that the "forced disappearances" - the description used by Malaysian Bar president George Varughese - are either state-sanctioned, or executed at the behest of powerful Islamic organisations.

"The noticeable lack of information on the steps taken by the authorities to locate and recover the five missing persons is most disconcerting, and raises alarming doubts on the adequacy of the safety and security measures in the country," Mr Varughese said in a statement on behalf of the legal profession.

The Sunday Times had spoken to Mr Chong at an event on March 8, and he had expressed strong suspicions that the other four missing persons were abducted by special government teams.

Tan Sri Khalid has dismissed claims of government involvement, and said that professionally executed abductions were common.

The police chief revealed that between 2011 and 2015, there were 13,290 reports of missing persons, with 8,117 of them found, as he criticised those who were highlighting these five cases.

Rev Hermen told The Sunday Times: "There is no need for extrajudicial abductions, as there are adequate laws to deal with those out to create disharmony in the country. Such abductions would be an intimidation of a community (trying) to practise their faith."

Correction Note: This story has been edited for clarity.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 16, 2017, with the headline 'Missing in Malaysia'. Print Edition | Subscribe