Categorised | Columns

Enforcing the law equally

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

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?

Or what incentives would new political parties have to abide by the RM200,000 parliamentary campaign limit if they knew that their opponents could spend millions with impunity?

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. favicon

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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15 Responses to “Enforcing the law equally”

  1. Ellese A says:

    How inconsistent and bias can a writer be. How come you’ve never call or highlight the goodies and cash offered by Pakatan during the Hulu Selangor by election? Is it because of smaller amount and thus not an offence? How come you have never request that the law also be enforced on the Selangor Menteri Besar Khalid and Anwar Ibrahim? Why didn’t you sinisterly suggest that Khalid and Anwar knew the law, yet they proceeded with the gifts anyway?

    Why didn’t you highlight this issue after Hulu Selangor? Is it because Pakatan was culpable as well? Why is it somehow if it’s a smaller amount, it is not an offence? Why is the writer so tragically sinister and bias?

    Why can’t you conduct an objective study. Lay down what has been promised by both parties. Don’t be selective. Then explain according to which provision are these offences. [Explain] what constitutes an offence. Then we can have an intelligent discussion. Otherwise it’s a malicious article with the only intent to cast aspersions and bringing disrepute to a person. It seems to start on the premise of bringing down Najib and is expanded to cover general public interest so that other readers can easily buy the message. There is no altruistic reason to request that the law be applicable equally. Shameful.

  2. burunghantu says:

    This is a good start. We must all work together to ensure the rule of law not only exists in this country but that it is enforced upon each and every Malaysian, regardless of position, race or religion and party affiliation.

  3. Law abiding citizen says:

    Hmmm….very interesting article indeed.

    Hey, maybe include another example: gathering of more than three [without a permit] is against the law ?

    What is the criteria or definition … the physical distance from each other? Otherwise, all those crowds in supermarkets, theaters, open fields, etc are by definition Illegal assemblies!

    Care to crack this Nutty issue?

    Good luck..and God Bless.

  4. Bob says:

    You forgot to highlight my favorite bug. Nobody can break the law, inclusive of police officers and government vehicles. How many times have you seen police outriders escorting VIPs and driving above the speed limit? How many times have you seen police vehicles driving above the speed limit when they are driving without their sirens on?

    The only time a Police Vehicle or Ambulance can drive above the speed limit is when they have their siren on and are chasing a criminal or rushing to a scene of a crime.
    [Are people] aware of this?

  5. megabigblur says:

    Another area where the law desperately need to be applied more fairly and consistently is in ownership of buildings and land. If a bunch of squatters have their zinc-roofed huts demolished for being illegal structures, so should developers who build without the proper permits have their condos knocked down – or they should at least be fined heavily AND made to pay extra for amending the permits.

  6. thokiat says:

    This “You help me, I help you” proclamation has raised the I Malaysia propaganda further to sky high level. Malaysia Boleh.

  7. Paul for Democracy says:

    I would like to remind normal TV viewers to occasionally tune into programmes on tv9 where there are still many Malay Malaysians who still complain that the Malay [Malaysians] are not being given enough aid and assistance over and above non-Malay [Malaysians. Are these people not aware of 1Malaysia? By the way, just WHAT is 1Malaysia?

  8. watever says:

    I agree with Ellese A. TNG isn’t independent however much it tries to mask its biasness. Boooo to TNG.

  9. Chiang says:


    Stop harping on the author and think for a moment whether you think it is right for one to break the law. If Malaysians need to rely on media like TNG to get law enforcement agencies to enforce a law, don’t you think this is rubbish? I agree with you that cash offers to voters, big or small amount, is still an offence. I’ll be surprised if the law enforcement agencies are not interested in catching Pakatan Rakyat’s representatives if they have evidence. Perhaps you can enlighten all of us if you possess any evidence. I will support you all the way too. After all, under the rule of law one needs to prove that someone is guilty of foul play. On the other hand, I can watch on YouTube over and over again that Najib did offer goodies and cash publicly. I can post the link to you if you want to.

    Let’s be fair. Otherwise you can choose to shut up.

  10. Ellese A says:

    Dear Chiang,

    You seem to live in your own delusional grandeur. It’s public knowledge what [Selangor] MB Khalid did and was even written about by your own pro-opposition Malaysian insider and Malaysiakini. Even the normally biased election watchdogs commented on this. Just read the write up in the many articles around that time. If you are still in denial mode, nothing in this world can change your bias and partisan view. I just feel pity for you for being manipulated but I hope in your reading sojourn your heart will open a bit for truthfulness.

  11. Stefanie says:

    “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.”

    – Tell them to get Trapster! 🙂 It’s a free mobile phone application that alerts drivers to red light cameras, speed cameras, live police, road hazards, etc. It’s honestly helpful with not only preventing tickets but also getting drivers to slow down and hopefully make them more aware of upcoming ticketing cameras.


  12. William says:

    Agree totally. And the more people see fairness in society, the more they are willing to give to society without obvious personal benefit, because they know that ‘what goes around, comes around’.

  13. Tragically and sinisterly biased says:

    […] Ellese A […] completely missed the point of the article but instead went off-tangent with a lenghty diatribe about Khalid and Hulu Selangor.

    What will satisfy you? That the author cites examples of politicians from every party who’s ever given cash inducements at election campaigns? Your fixation with Khalid and Hulu Selangor clearly displays your bias. Then again, TNG readers already know where your loyalties lie from your comments on previous articles.

  14. faith04 says:

    Of the two devils, BN and Pakatan, which is hardcore and beyond repair?

    BN with 53 years of corrupt practices, obviously need to be stopped without further delay. It doesn’t mean Pakatan can continue to practise vote buying, too.

    But, BN must bear more of the blame because it controls important law-enforcing institutions such as the police, MACC and the [public] prosecutor, and uses them to suppress the opposition. [This] has destroyed the reputation of these federal institutions.

    Our politicians really can’t discipline themselves, so people must speak out and act lawfully to change these corrupt politicians.

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