Down2Earth - Temper justice with compassion

ON Friday I met the head of an ombudsman-like agency to discuss issues affecting his organisation.

While I admittedly came to the meeting with clenched fists over the perceived failures of the organisation in carrying out its responsibilities, my stance softened half way through when we discussed the case of S. Sellamah and I learnt what he and his wife had done for the 36-year-old single mother who was caught in dire circumstances last week.

Sellamah was in the news last week following her conviction for stealing a 2kg packet of Milo for her two-year-old daughter.

Sellamah's plea for mercy to Magistrate Husna Dzulkifly was she gave in to her motherly instincts when her daughter kept asking for the popular beverage. This resonated with Malaysians sympathetic to her plight and who were horrified that the punishment did not seem to fit the crime.

She was sentenced to a day's jail and RM200 fine or another five days in prison if she failed to pay the fine.

Judges are allowed discretion in these types of cases. Sellamah could have been bound over and released with a two-year probation and referred to the Welfare Department, instead she ended up in Kajang Prison.

Logically if she could not afford the RM32 for the packet of Milo, she certainly would not have been able to come up with the RM200 to pay the fine. Fortunately her ordeal was short-lived as a Good Samaritan couple had come to her rescue, paying the fine in court on Thursday.

The woman who helped pay the fine even drove all the way to the Kajang Prison to hand over the release documents herself to the prisons director and ensure Sellamah was reunited with her daughter.

I learnt at my meeting that the kind woman's husband was the person I was meeting that day, the head of the organisation I was profiling.

They were even late in collecting their son's SPM results as they had prioritised Sellamah's freedom.

The man, in his late 40s, requested anonymity saying they do what they do – come to the aid of the less fortunate and those like Sellamah who are down on their luck – without any publicity or fanfare.

His wife is part of a WhatsApp group of compassionate Malaysians who identify cases like Sellamah's and help alleviate their burden.

The couple continue to check on Sellamah, contacting her over the weekend to see what else they can do to help.

And while most news reports highlighted the fact that Sellamah was helped by a Malay couple, I do not wish to emphasise their race. This is because we are all Malaysians and once upon a time, one's ethnicity did not matter where a Malay helping an Indian or a Chinese coming to the aid of a Malay was not news.

Race had nothing to do with it, just human compassion and decency – traits that are universal.

When asked by an officer at the prison as to why she was helping a total stranger, the Good Samaritan (as related by her husband) asked in return if the officer had a family of her own. When the officer said she was not married, the woman responded: "Once you have children you will understand."

In Sellamah's case, her inability to pay the fine would have meant having to spend five extra days in prison separated from her young daughter. One doubts if this is what the law intended.

Her case is fast becoming a tragic tale of urban poverty and the high cost of living.

And a warning to the government that it needs to take more comprehensive steps to ease the cost of living. That annual handouts such as BR1M will not go very far in attending to the day-to-day struggle of the marginalised like Sellamah.

There will be more such cases as times get worse, like 45-year-old Chng Kim Fatt, who was jailed seven days and fined RM100 in February for stealing six cans of sardines worth RM33.30. Yes, sardines, which used to be the poor man's meal, seem to be out of reach for some.

Meanwhile, those who sit in positions of passing judgment must consider tempering their decisions with mercy. While the law may have been upheld, justice in these cases was not.

Terence says we seem to live in a society where those who steal to eat are treated worse than those who squander and rob millions of people's money. Feedback: letters@thesundaily.com