(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.
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.
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.
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.