Palani Narayanan is optimistic; excited even. As the recently appointed senior advisor for Drug Use and Community Responses for the international financing body Global Fund, he is eager to get to work: convincing governments to adopt harm-reduction policies in tackling substance abuse instead of the all out “war on drugs” that punishes and criminalises drug users.
“Let’s face it … the war on drugs hasn’t worked,” he says, referring to government-led initiatives to stop drug use, distribution and trade by increasing and enforcing penalties for offenders that was first introduced by the United States in the 1970s.
“It hasn’t improved the drug problem … not here in Malaysia, or anywhere in the world. All it has done is create an underground drug trade that’s grown so powerful.
“The war on drugs has been around for over 40 years and when something hasn’t worked for that long, it really is time to find a different way to tackle the drug problem,” says the public health specialist who was one of the pioneer HIV/AIDS activists in Malaysia.
Although his scope is international, Palani, 47, is particularly anxious about meeting with the new Malaysian Government in the hopes that it will be receptive to adopting a more progressive drug policy.
Just two weeks into the job and he’s already touched base with Health Ministry officials about HIV prevention.
Having worked with drug users and people living with HIV/AIDS for close to 30 years, Palani practically lives and breathes advocacy. His usually relaxed and easy demeaner changes when he starts on the subject of his work – his speech quickens, his body is upright and his eyes come alive.
Malaysia, he says, needs to do away with its punitive approach – the “break you down to build you up” way of tackling drug users is not just ineffective, it is inhumane, he says.
“Are we helping people get out of (addiction)? No, we are stigmatising them and branding them criminals. When they get out (of jail), they can’t get jobs, their families shun them … they are worse off,” he stresses.
According to official data, the number of drug addiction cases in Malaysia has steadily increased despite its tough drug laws: there was a 14% increase between 2015 and 2016 (from 26,668 to 30,847); the number of new drug addicts also increased to 22,925, compared to 20,281 in the same period.
Yet, the government has been dogmatic on its national drug policy, unwilling to try alternative ways.
“Now is the perfect time. The old government resisted change but hopefully with the new government, we have a good chance of changing these policies. I’d love for Malaysia to be the first in the region to challenge the war on drugs and decriminalise drugs. We can do it,” he says.
Harm reduction refers to policies, programmes and practices that aim to reduce the harms associated with the use of psychoactive drugs in people unable or unwilling to stop.
A good country to model after, says Palani, is Portugal. In 2001, Portugal decriminalised all drugs, and the possession and personal use of drugs is seen as a health issue – a chronic, relapsing disease – and not a crime.
“In Portugal, if you get caught with small quantities of drugs, you won’t be arrested. Instead you’ll have to report to a special committee that will assess your situation. If they think you need help, they will send you to the health services. If your situation isn’t dire, you will get off with an alternate sentence (not prison) or a warning,” he explains.
The results, Palani reports, have been positive. “We have evaluated them over and over again and we know that it absolutely works. Until now, there has not been an increase in people who use drugs, no increase in young people using drugs and no increase in crime. And there has been a significant drop in HIV and drug-related illnesses.
“And yet, countries are resistent to following their model,” says Palani, bewildered.
A lifelong mission
Palani was an undergraduate at Universiti Malaya when he got acquainted with the PT Foundation (known as Pink Triangle, then), a community-based non-profit that works with drug users, sex workers and people living with HIV/AIDS in Chow Kit. The first night that he walked with activists in the back lanes of the city, Palani was stunned at the scenes that he witnessed.
“I had never seen anything like that … dozens of men and women in the back lanes shooting up and children just wandering around. These people had no one to turn to, no one to help them. I immediately felt that I wanted to do something,” he recalls.
Along with activists Julian Jayaseela and Karen Radzi, Palani co-founded Ikhlas, a drop-in centre for addicts, in 1992. Every day, after his classes at university were over, he’d be at the centre or on the streets of Chow Kit.
“I’d found my passion and my calling. These people needed help … they were worse off than anyone I’d known and HIV was spreading so quickly in those early days, in the mid-1990s. There was work to be done and I wanted to do it.
“When I was asked to manage Ikhlas the following year, I decided to take a year off from university. I didn’t think it’d be a problem. I was a good student and had won the excellent student award in my first year. Surely they wouldn’t want to let me go,” he mused.
He was mistaken – the university didn’t allow him to take a sabatical and Palani had to make one of the most difficult decisions of his life.
“I had to decide and I chose the streets,” he recounts.
His decision wasn’t well-received by his family who couldn’t grasp why he would give up his university education.
Having grown up on an estate in Chaah, a small town with a population of about 200, near Segamat, Johor, Palani had dreamt of moving to the big city all his life. He worked through upper-secondary school to earn his place in university.
“I had to go to Kluang in Form Four because there was no Science stream in Chaah. Through friends of family, I managed to secure lodging with an elderly man with Parkinsons whose family was looking for a caregiver. I also worked at KFC at one point,” he shares.
The hard work paid off – Palani became the first in his family to get a tertiary education, which made quitting university even harder.
In hindsight, dropping out opened more doors to Palani then he could have imagined.
Palani went on to start the country’s first harm reduction programme for sex workers and drug users. In 1997, he was elected as the chairman of the Asian Harm Reduction Network which was the beginning of his international work – he has worked on projects in 26 countries.
And, because of his work experience, he was offered a place to do his Masters degree in Public Health by the University of New South Wales.
“I did really well … I was dying to get this paper qualification after leaving university all those years ago and I made sure I did well,” he says with a laugh.
Palani then worked with AusAid on projects in Indonesia and was instrumental in helping develop their national harm reduction programmes. He was also the national consultant for Malaysia’s pilot needle exchange programme 13 years ago.
In 2013, Palani decided to take a short break from his advocacy work to spend more time with his late mother who was in poor health.
“I was home for a short while and an opportunity came up for me to manage a friend’s hotel in Bali. I decided to take up the challenge of managing a business. I turned the business around and we used the profits for HIV treatment programmes in Bali.”
Then one day, Palani heard of a job opening with the Global Fund and decided to apply for the position.
“The Global Fund is a financing mechanism set up by various countries in the United Nations. It is the biggest donor agency, currently disbursing around US$4bil (RM12bil) for programmes concerning tuberculosis, malaria and HIV and is making a huge impact in the prevention of these diseases. I wanted to work for this organisation … imagine having that sort of funding. So I applied earlier this year and I got it,” he says.
Palani is psyched about what the future holds, not for himself but for the communities he is fighting for.
“It has has been wonderful so far. Global Fund is very committed to ending AIDS by 2030 and I feel very privileged to be part of that vision,” he enthuses.
He may be based 10,000km away in Geneva, Switzerland, but Palani insists that he is still very much the “small town boy from Chaah”.
“I hope that my story can give hope to some other small kid in some small town that they can achieve anything they dream of. And more so in New Malaysia,” he says, with full enthusiasm. “Malaysia boleh!”