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The Malaysian state of impunity (Updated)

(Updated 2:45pm, 1 May 2011)

TWO things alarmed me about the arrest of Adrian Yeo, who is Selangor exco Elizabeth Wong’s aide, in Miri on 16 April 2011 after the Sarawak elections. One was the number of police officers who publicly assaulted him before he was taken away. The other was how none of the five or more police officers who dragged Yeo away could tell him exactly what he was being arrested for.

Despite repeated demands, even pleas, of “Apa kesalahan saya?”, no police officer at the counting centre for the Senadin seat can be heard explaining to Yeo why he was being arrested.

According to the Bar Council’s Red Book: Know Your Rights, an arrest is unlawful if you are not informed of the reason. And yet this did not stop the Miri police officers who hauled Yeo away that night. They unlawfully dragged and carried and pushed and incarcerated Yeo even though the whole incident was in full public view and was clearly being recorded. And they did this because frankly, the Miri police knew they could get away with it.


From blog and Facebook discussions, it would seem that Yeo’s only crime was to ask for a recount of the ballots in Senadin, which Parti Keadilan Rakyat lost by a wafer-thin 58 votes. No matter what the event was that triggered his arrest, what should be startling to Malaysians is the impunity by which those in power – in this instance, the police – act against citizens or public interest.

What is even more disturbing is that the police’s impunity is not limited to just arresting someone who represents the opposition.

In an 11 March 2011 letter, Bukit Aman told the Women’s Aid Organisation (WAO) that the 2010 police statistics on sexual crimes and crimes against children had been classified as “confidential” and hence, could not be released.

No official reason was given for how or why these statistics, which are funded by tax payers, had suddenly become “confidential”.

WAO executive director Ivy Josiah explains in a phone interview that before this, for example in 2010, the women’s rights group was able to get hold of the same statistics for the previous year. “This would suggest that the process of declaring something ‘confidential’ or ‘secret’ is arbitrary,” she notes.

Josiah (Pic courtesy of Ivy Josiah)

Indeed, even though WAO has sent an appeal letter, dated 1 April, to explain the organisation’s need for the statistics in their public education work, no response has been forthcoming from Bukit Aman.

And why should the police respond? Or change their mind about releasing the data? After all, the Official Secrets Act (OSA) allows for anything under the tropical Malaysian sun to be declared a secret. And until we have a Freedom of Information Act at the federal level, the police can continue to act with impunity when it comes to statistics that belong to the public.

(Updated) WAO finally received the statistics from the police on 29 April 2011, nearly a full month after appealing to the police. However, the police are prohibiting WAO from divulging the information to any third party. WAO has been instructed that the statistics can only be used in their research and nothing else. Whether the OSA actually allows the police to restrict the way public information is used is a huge question mark.

But the law is just part of a much larger problem. What is hacking away at Malaysia’s foundations today is the culture of impunity that those in power cultivate and guard jealously.

Malaysian culture

Consider this: Why does the prime minister, his deputy and other Barisan Nasional (BN) leaders have no fear of making election promises or threats that clearly violate the Election Offences Act? Let me hazard an answer: Because despite repeated calls by civil society for action to be taken, the Election Commission continues to act like it is not empowered to do anything.

Why do people continue to die in police detention, at immigration detention centres in Malaysia and while in the custody of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC)? Because nothing is done to book the officers responsible for these deaths and to clean up the system that allows for abuse to happen in detention.

Why is the government of Malaysia allowed to ride shoddily on citizen’s civil liberties? Because the courts would rather recognise the repressive laws of the land than uphold citizen’s fundamental rights and freedoms.

And why does nobody really know when or even if Sarawak Chief Minister Tan Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud will step down after being in office for 30 years and amassing a vast fortune while his state remains one of the poorest in Malaysia? Clearly, it’s because many Sarawakians and the BN have made it possible for him to hold on indefinitely. At the same time, the MACC seems unable to investigate how he grew so wealthy.

This culture of impunity isn’t just made possible by laws. It’s made possible by state agencies and authorities and the other arms of government doing nothing to enforce accountability and responsibility in the public’s interest. Indeed, instead of public interest, it is the partisan interest of the BN incumbent that is protected by these institutions.

Are the pillars that hold up our nation crumbling? (vimark /

Are the pillars that hold up our nation crumbling? (vimark /

No surprise then that the customs officers who were recently caught for corruption had gold bars and bags of cash in their homes. They must have been supremely confident that they were going to get away with it. After all, the culture and environment we live in no longer has any modicum of accountability if the prime minister himself and his administration can get away with election bribery and offences.

“We seem to have to accept this as a way of life – that those in power will get away with whatever they choose to do, and it just makes people feel helpless and angry,” Josiah observes. That is true whether it’s the police or the prime minister who is involved in an act of impunity.

For certain, the message for Malaysians is loud and clear. If one belongs to the BN incumbent, one can act with impunity. And it is that culture of immunity that ensures further incumbency.

Surely there’s something terribly wrong with this picture? On many days when I’m in Malaysia, I feel like I’m in a disaster movie where the pillars that hold up our nation have been repeatedly hacked and are inexorably crumbling. And what awaits us is inevitable chaos and ruin.

Jacqueline Ann Surin would like to be in a different movie.

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13 Responses to “The Malaysian state of impunity (Updated)”

  1. Sazman says:

    It’s funny how one person can write such an eloquent article and skew the facts to suit his/her own agenda. The article was well written and I agree with many points in it. However, the portrayal of the police using excessive force I feel is incorrect. From what I saw, Elizabeth Wong is pushing and pulling at the police [officers] who are making an arrest. True, they did not state the reason for it, but according to Malaysian law, the police have the right to inform you of what you are being arrested for at the station, if they wish to avoid a public disturbance. I do not see any form of excessive violence being used. He is making life difficult for everyone by refusing to go quietly, resulting in the police officers having to drag him outside.

    If you do wish to represent the truth, please ensure that you don’t sensationalise the facts. That’s what supermarket tabloids do, and if you are a journalist, a “truth” reporter, then avoid sensationalism.

    • achibong says:

      It’s funnier when you cannot understand that an arrest is unlawful if you are not informed of the reason (of the arrest) -according to the Bar Council’s Red Book: Know Your Rights.

    • robert says:

      Hello Sazman,

      Read the red book.

    • myke says:

      It’s people like you that allow those in power to get away with anything they want. When you have the power to do things, you have to educate, and be educated, and keep the public informed. It’s called professionalism. If things remain as they are, then we won’t see any improvements.

      You are talking as if the police have a good reputation and practise public importance as a priority. Check out what the RCI said about the police. Why are you ignoring reality?

    • Yeo Kien Kiong says:

      From the video, the aide appears to be molested by the police, while poor Elizabeth has to fight to protect Yeo and the bystanders can’t do anything because they fear they will be assaulted by the police. If you look carefully, Yeo should make a complaint about sexual harassment.

      Furthermore, violence can be defined in all sorts of ways: physical and emotional. It is easy to sensationalise an event based on a small video clip. But will the propaganda machinery of the government show a bit of justice and impartiality by letting the public know what is happening, rather than “informing” readers that the election event “went smoothly”?

    • tey says:

      I hope you know what you are talking about, too. The police have acted as hooligans in this case. We have a right to know what our charges are before being taken away, even in a clear-cut murder case. I do hope you know what happens to some who are taken in – they may not come back, you know!

  2. Kong Kek Kuat says:

    @ Jacqueline

    Even though the term “Miri police” is technically not wrong in English, it does unintentionally insinuate that those police personnel you refer to are Mirians/Sarawakians. Regardless of what was on your mind at the time of writing – maybe the majority of them are Sarawakians; maybe the majority of them are not.

    I do know that there are many government personnel seconded to Sarawak only for the purpose of this local election. And I do know that there are many of those in the police force based in Sarawak who are actually Malaysians [from the peninsula]. Ditto the Customs & Excise based in Sarawak.

    But then again, there are exceptions, i.e. civilised Malayans and loutish Sarawakians.

    Nevertheless, I generally find it hard to believe that Sarawakians (native or otherwise) would behave like those “Miri police” you mentioned. Maybe you could have just referred to them as “the police”, instead of “the Miri police”?

  3. cw says:

    I’ve to agree with the excessive force because the police were quite “subtle” compared to many other videos I’ve seen.

    I’m no law graduate, so is it true that they can detain you and only inform you on the reason for detention in the police station (based on what Sazman commented)? If that’s the case, it makes no sense at all! Who, in their right mind, would be willing to be detained without knowing what he/she did wrong? Furthermore, if it were such, cops could easily abuse their power (like removing an outspoken opposition in this case), or cons would have their work cut out posing as police officers, detaining [people], and then God knows what – kidnap, rape, murder?

    Sazman – like I said, I agree entirely that the part of excessive force, but to say its sensationalised is a bit farfetched. I honestly believe the writer was perhaps immersing herself in what the person would feel when being detained without being given a reason – hence even the act of just dragging him away seems “excessive”. I’m sure even you would be incensed if a cop came up to you and arrested you without telling you a reason.

  4. Lok1 says:

    Dear Sazman,

    I do agree that there wasn’t any excessive violence in the arrest, but then again the law states that the person arrested should be informed of the reason or offence committed. Please do not defend the police. During my time, we police were very different, we had more compassion, we used more leeway and persuasion, and we always understood our orders. We we more human then, I guess. Nowadays, I feel so sorry for the people; the term “police state” is exactly where we are right now.

    I don’t know where you are coming from, but I can guess. When we Muslims pray, do we really mean what we say, or is it just music to our ears to show others? I believe it was George Bernard Shaw who said “Islam is the best religion, but Muslims are its worst enemies”. […] Salam to all Muslims and sorry to my fellow country[folk], especially to my children and insha allah grandchildren. For them I can only write and vote the right government for them. I hope I succeed.

  5. Edward says:

    To Anwar/Asmin, in the next general election, pick candidates like Ivy Josiah, Fernandes and many more from NGOs instead of BN rejects […]

  6. justice says:

    This is a despicable act by the police! By law, the police have NO RIGHT to arrest a person without stating the charges against that person. What has justice come to in Malaysia?? This is tyranny! Like Europe in the dark ages!

  7. Yee says:

    [This is] selective prosecution of political opponents with the assistance of the police force, which is supposed to be an independent workforce. The Malaysian government definitely has learn some tricks from its southern neighbour.

  8. Andre Das says:

    Quoting saudara Hussaini AK, its no longer PDRM but PRDM POLICE RAJA DI MALAYSIA. The timing of all the sensational MACC arrests always makes me wonder whether it was just by chance before elections that such sensational arrests happens.

    Maybe Sazman, like most others, has been conditioned to think that such acts are the norm, hence the view that this report has been sensationalised. Essentially:

    1. Is the arrested person a perceived danger to the public that he needs to be arrested immediately? If the police argument is yes, then why was he the only one arrested, considering that he was with his fellow party members?

    2.Is he a threat to the arresting police to justify the use of such force? If yes, then what was the threat? […]

    Of course the ISA arrest of the female Sin Chew reporter takes the cake and has been forgotten by even you, Jacq, as the perfect example of impunity from the very top, hence giving a good account of leadership by example from our minister of home affairs.

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