Pastor's abduction highlights violent nature of intolerance in Malaysia

Mr Raymond Koh received a death threat in 2011 and went missing on Feb 13. His family members (from right) wife Susanna Liew, son Jonathan, and daughters Elizabeth and Ester are clinging on to hope that their patriarch is safe.
Mr Raymond Koh received a death threat in 2011 and went missing on Feb 13. His family members wife Susanna Liew, son Jonathan, and daughters Elizabeth and Ester are clinging on to hope that their patriarch is safe.ST PHOTO: LESLIE LOPEZ
Mr Raymond Koh received a death threat in 2011 and went missing on Feb 13. His family members (from right) wife Susanna Liew, son Jonathan, and daughters Elizabeth and Ester are clinging on to hope that their patriarch is safe.
Mr Raymond Koh received a death threat in 2011 and went missing on Feb 13. His family members (from right) wife Susanna Liew, son Jonathan, and daughters Elizabeth and Ester are clinging on to hope that their patriarch is safe.ST PHOTO: LESLIE LOPEZ

Elements of case echo slaying of Christian politician in 2000

Early one morning in late August 2011, Mr Jonathan Koh discovered a curious package addressed to his father, Pastor Raymond Koh, in the letterbox of their home in a Kuala Lumpur suburb.

In the package were two bullets. There was also a note, written in blood-red ink in Malay, that read: "Laknat Kristian 1. Joe Fernandez. 2. Lu". The note translated said: "Damn Christian. No. 1 Joe Fernandez. No.2 You", the younger Mr Koh, now 33, told The Straits Times.

Dr Joe Fernandez was a Kedah state assemblyman with the ruling Barisan Nasional, who was shot dead by two assailants in 2000 in his home town of Bukit Mertajam in Kedah. Intelligence officials have long maintained that his assailants were members of the militant Kumpulan Mujahiddin Malaysia (KMM), a splinter group of the Al Qaeda-linked Jemaah Islamiah.

According to regional intelligence officials, Dr Fernandez was killed because he was allegedly trying to convert members of a Muslim family to Christianity. The death threat Mr Raymond Koh received nearly six years ago also came on the back of allegations that he was trying to convert Muslims.

Mr Koh's family and friends say his enemies made good on their threat on Feb 13 - the day the 64-year-old one-time preacher with the Evangelical Free Church in Subang Jaya did not return home from running an errand. Closed-circuit television footage that surfaced a few weeks later shows how he was abducted in an operation that bore the hallmarks of a military-style assault.

"When I saw the video, fear crept into me. How they smashed the windscreens and pulled him out (of the car). It was so frightening," 62-year-old Susanna Liew, Mr Raymond Koh's wife and mother of their three children, said in a recent interview with The Straits Times.

The abduction, in broad daylight, involved three black SUVs, two cars and at least 15 men, including one man who was videotaping the whole operation.

Why any group would mount such an elaborate assault on the low-profile Mr Koh, who has been helping single mothers, drug addicts and those with HIV for the past decade, is puzzling, say lawyers and retired politicians who are helping his family.

Lawyer Philip Koh said: "He always struck me as a sincere humanitarian for those who are voiceless and vulnerable."

Equally puzzling is the lack of new leads into the pastor's disappearance after nearly two months. Ms Liew, a housewife who regularly volunteers her services for Mr Koh's community programmes, said: "We met the police twice (since the abduction). The police investigation should not be about his activities but about finding him and bringing his abductors to justice."

The Malaysian police are generally credited for their ability to solve high-profile criminal cases quickly. But the lack of progress in this case has prompted speculation that the police are dealing with a very resourceful religious militant group that appears ready to violently target those perceived to be threats to Islam.

Tensions over issues of race and religion are common in Malaysia.

In recent years, tensions have flared between hard-line Muslim groups and ordinary Malaysians over issues ranging from the use of the word Allah, or God, to the petting of dogs, which are considered unclean in Islam, and the vandalising of places of worship.

But Mr Raymond Koh's abduction is stirring widespread disquiet that rising religious intolerance in multi-racial Malaysia could be taking a more violent bent.

The parallels to the late Dr Fernandez's slaying in November 2000 are also disturbing. Intelligence officials have long maintained that the KMM cell, led by Zainuri Kamaruddin, was behind the killing. Zainuri's group was also responsible for robbing a bank in May 2001, before fleeing to Indonesia and, more recently, Syria to fight alongside the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS).

Zainuri was killed together with two other Malaysians in mid-January, when Syrian forces carried out air raids on the ISIS stronghold of Raqqa, according to Malaysian intelligence officials.

For the Kohs, there is no closure and they are clinging on to hope. Ms Ester Koh, 32, who is on an extended break from her accounts executive job to be with her family, said she had a dream in which she saw her father "sitting in the cafeteria... and I shouted out to him. His face was glowing".

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 19, 2017, with the headline 'Pastor's abduction highlights violent nature of intolerance'. Print Edition | Subscribe