June 4, 2010

The police must be the rakyat ( people)

by Tunku Abidin Muhriz

SIR Robert Peel, Home Secretary of the United Kingdom, established London’s Metropolitan Police Service in 1829 according to certain principles, most importantly that "the police are the public and the public are the police". Here, that adage met the Malaccan tradition of policing, in which the Temenggung would act as Home Minister and oversee the general maintenance of law and order, while penghulus would be in charge of village security. The Royal Malaysian Police as we know it today is the product of several reincarnations and mergers as colonialism, war and federation took their course.

It has done some glorious things in its history. Its officers have shown gallantry on countless occasions: many forgotten, many unknown. But two things oft retold are the bravery of officers (and their wives) during the siege of Bukit Kepong – a metaphor for the gallant role of the security forces during the Emergency as a whole – and the testimony of those protected by police on May 13, 1969 as murderous political provocateurs prowled the streets of Kuala Lumpur.

There was a time when the words
"Special Branch" were regarded as comforting rather than intimidating, and numerous Royal
Mal-aysian Police personnel have been awarded the Seri Pahlawan Gagah Perkasa. From this point of view it is no surprise that the "Royal" prefix has been bestowed upon the institution.

But it has suffered several dark moments too, and the shooting of Aminulrasyid Amzah is one of them. A boy’s life has been ended violently and prematurely, causing anguish and heartbreak. Despite calls not to politicise the issue, Facebook pages have taken party affiliations already. Many questions have been asked, from why our police officers statistically shoot citizens more often than in other democracies, to what an underage boy was doing driving a vehicle after midnight, and whether or not the reforms proposed by the Royal Police Commission of May 2005 would have prevented instances like this.

No one can say for sure, but it is a great shame that the ref-orms, in particular the establishment of the Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC) have not been enacted. The government had an opportunity to address the revulsion at the institutions that are supposed to maintain law and order, but they dithered, and today public cynicism against the police (along with the courts and the Anti-Corruption Commission) is routine.

My own experiences with the police have been mixed. We have all heard (or participated in) stories about roadblock bribery. My friend once did a perfectly legal turn but was asked to pay RM80 anyway, and I once did a technically illegal U-turn in Petaling Jaya (I was lost, it was dark, there were no signs, no lights and lots of potholes) and the constable baited for duit kopi for about three minutes before giving up. I was lucky then, but apparently there are crests anyone can buy which act as passes at police roadblocks. It is almost assumed that the law doesn’t apply if the cops think you’re a VIP, but the integrity of our entire system of law is threatened once the police are scared to book someone because of their perceived status.

And yet, after my house caught fire, a very professional officer was on site within 15 minutes to take down a statement and put me at ease. A few days ago I had a chat with three cops serving as outriders – the sort who give thumbs-up to cooperative drivers and say "terima kaseh" over their loudhailers. I asked them about highlights of their job ("escorting foreign VIPs like Queen Elizabeth and Condoleezza Rice"), and whether they’re paid enough ("the thrill of the job keeps us going"). These guys love their job, and they know they’re making a positive difference to the country in doing so.

Yet the government and the police cannot be obdurate to reform. One idea that I’d like to see debated is decentralisation of the police force. As America has its NYPD and the LAPD, so we can have police forces subordinate to local government here too to address petty crimes, while major or cross-border crimes could be dealt with by a federal force. Such a setup – reminiscent of the Malaccan system – could increase local accountability and trust. Above all, it would make the police the rakyat once again.

Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz is president of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs.

Updated: 10:04AM Mon, 10 May 2010