EVER looked both ways while driving and asked your passengers, “See any police?” before making an illegal U-turn? Or snuck a call on your mobile phone without a hands-free kit while driving? Or driven past the traffic lights just as they turned red? If so, did you know you were breaking the law? And if you did, why did you do it anyway?
Funny how the law sometimes seems flexible, especially when there’s a good chance you won’t be punished for breaking it. Take the May 2010 Sibu by-election campaign for example. Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak “made a deal” with Sibu voters to give them RM5 million in flood mitigation if they put Barisan Nasional (BN) candidate Robert Lau Hui Yew in Parliament. Did Najib realise he was potentially breaking the law since the Election Offences Act says it’s an offence to induce voters with cash promises? And if he did realise it, why did he do it anyway?
What is it about the Malaysian law enforcement system that lets its citizens regularly get away with offences, whether big or small, on a daily basis? And what happens when the chief executive, the prime minister himself or herself, flouts the rules?
Getting caught after breaking the law and being punished for it is a crucial factor in encouraging people to follow laws. If enough people in society regularly experience being punished for crimes, more people would be encouraged to obey the law even when the enforcers are not watching. Like Ivan Pavlov‘s dog which was conditioned to salivate at the tinkling of a bell, people tend to comply because they expect retribution for breaking the law, even when it’s not immediately forthcoming.
For example, when driving in Australia on a recent trip, I found my eyes constantly glued to the speedometer. This was probably related to my firm belief that I would be fined if I drove even 5km per hour above the speed limit.
Our experience driving in Kuala Lumpur however is very different. We seem to have a heightened awareness of the law only under certain circumstances. During and just before festive seasons, perhaps, when road blocks are aplenty. Or when passing certain notorious junctions where police officers are known to hide behind trees or pillars, waiting to nab the unsuspecting rule-breaker. Or maybe at certain traffic lights where the red-light camera actually works and results in traffic summonses being posted to the house.
This is what happens when rules are not applied uniformly and equally to everyone. Drivers probably know that on an average day, getting caught for speeding in a residential area, for example, is relatively low. There are no comprehensive enforcement systems to track these offences. Even when summonses are issued, I know of people who deliberately leave them unpaid, in the hopes that their records will be lost in the administrative jungle of thousands of other unpaid summonses.
Rule of law
The problem of Najib’s possible election offence is not just a by-election problem but one that is related to public confidence in the law enforcement system as a whole. We have become used to seeing crimes committed and the perpetrators unpunished. So although a big fuss has been made of Najib’s by-election campaign in Sibu, many of us may not actually expect him to be charged for his “I help you, you help me” remarks.
The law should be equally applied and enforced, regardless of position
Such cynicism would be misplaced in a functioning democracy that upholds the rule of law. Under the rule of law, whether you are a pauper, preacher or the prime minister, the law should apply equally. And equal application essentially means equal enforcement of the law on all, regardless of position. A law is only meaningful to the extent that it is enforced.
Role of independent institutions
We need to start pressuring our democratic institutions to act independently and enforce laws equally across the board. An urban dweller for example, shouldn’t be more at risk at being fined for speeding than someone in a small town or vice versa. Traffic enforcement should be as uniform as possible so that we don’t only watch out for police officers and adapt our behaviour accordingly only when driving on certain stretches of the highway. And the prime minister should be just as liable to being investigated as the opposition leader if offences have been committed.
This will require the proper functioning of several state organs. The police would have to conduct investigations efficiently and without bias. The attorney-general’s chambers would have to decide independently which cases to prosecute on the basis of the strength of evidence and whether a prosecution is in the public interest. The courts would have to hear cases impartially and decide based on the evidence presented and the law. The courts also perform another important function — when laws are found to be unconstitutional and take away citizens’ rights, a court can strike or read down these laws.
Only when these three organs function independently will there be a possibility of equal application of the law.
Law and certainty
When law enforcement breaks down, so does law abidance. What incentive is there for Malaysians to pay their income taxes faithfully, for example, if they knew that corrupt politicians could siphon their money away in dubious projects and get away with it?
To go back to driving — imagine if you were at a cross-junction and you were the only one following the traffic lights while everyone else drove across willy-nilly. Wouldn’t you be the only one stuck indefinitely at the junction?
Or if you’re a land-owner awaiting local council approval for the construction of your house while everyone else happily bribes their way through. If you refrain, wouldn’t you be the only one stuck without a home?
Najib (public domain | Wiki Commons)As much as we may find it easier to break the law at times, the reality is this — laws help make things certain so that we can go about the daily business of actually living our lives. Well-enforced laws are meant to avoid us constantly having to worry about our neighbour’s illegally approved renovations or our fellow drivers’ speeding tendencies. The rule of law also ultimately helps to weed out archaic laws as their unworkability and incongruity with the times would be demonstrated when they are enforced.
So the next time you run a red light and aren’t caught, don’t be so quick to rejoice. It’s the same lack of enforcement that allows our leaders to break the law and get away with it.
Ding Jo-Ann is attempting to follow the speed limit at all times, even when she’s unsure of what the speed limit is.
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