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Saving the police

WILL the late Aminulrasyid Amzah be the last victim of state violence? Like political aide Teoh Beng Hock‘s death in custody — the anniversary is two months away — the extra-judicial killing of Aminulrasyid has caused a lot of anger because he was not one of the “usual suspects”.

Screencap of the Facebook group
What if Aminulrasyid were 25 and not 15, or if he were a mat rempit? Would Malaysians be so outraged that more than 68,000 would join the Facebook group KAMI BENCI KEKEJAMAN POLIS MALAYSIA! — JUSTICE FOR AMINULRASYID? Would the cabinet have issued a condolence statement? Would an eight-person panel with eminent membership but doubtful powers make a late night visit to the scene of his death?

There have been many Aminulrasyids and Teohs out there, but because many have had criminal records or tainted reputations, their deaths at the hands of enforcement authorities have gone unnoticed.

If Aminulrasyid were Indian Malaysian, Hindraf leader P Uthayakumar would probably attribute his death to racial profiling and call it “institutional racism”. But Aminulrasyid was Malay Malaysian. So was Norizan Salleh who sustained five gunshot wounds from police who claimed that she was driving a stolen car.

How would we explain this then? Institutional sadism?

Perhaps it’s best to start by putting things in perspective.

Holding the police accountable

Police shootings are commonplace in many countries, including the US.  In his book Blink, Malcolm Gladwell documents how Amadou Diallo, a 23 year-old Guinean immigrant, was killed by police in the Bronx, New York City. Police fired 41 shots at him while he was standing in his apartment doorway. Apparently when he reached into his jacket, they thought he was pulling out a gun — it was really a wallet, there were no weapons on Diallo’s body. 

But police in many other countries rarely shoot suspects dead, the UK being one example. England and Wales have recorded only five deaths by police shootings per year, on average, for the past 10 years, with only single deaths in 1994 and 2006, and none in 1997.

Why? One simple explanation is that every time a person is killed or injured from the UK police‘s use of firearms, an automatic investigation is triggered. If the person dies, a coroner’s inquest will follow to examine the causes of the fatality.

And as much as the independence of the UK’s Independent Police Complaints Commission (IPCC) is questioned, at least the Britons have it.

police at work
Where is our IPCMC?

Where is our Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC)? The proposal to set up the IPCMC was eventually retracted because of police pressure. Even the proposed inferior substitute, the Enforcement Agency Integrity Commission (EAIC), has not been established. In fact, in the wake of Aminulrasyid’s death, the inspector-general of police even threatened to pull cops from street patrols should the public continue condemning them over the killing.

One question we must ask then is what makes our police force so defiant and defensive of public opinion? The answer is straightforward: It appears that our police force cannot live up to legitimate expectations of their performance.

The police force is unfortunately so notorious for corruption that they have to pledge against it by wearing a badge. They are also largely incompetent. One only needs to look at the growing number of gated communities to ask if tax payers should request rebates — they have to pay private security firms to ensure everyday safety.

Fairness to the police

However, no matter how tempting it is to blame the situation squarely on these officers in blue, I cannot bring myself to. I have personally come across police officers who moonlight as burger sellers because their approximately RM1,000 monthly salary simply cannot sustain, say, a family of four.

I wonder: Has the combination of low public respect and low pay not contributed to the “trigger-happy” state of the force?  With so much public ridicule and economic pressure (if they live honestly by their official income), can they be mentally stable enough to handle confrontational situations?

How can the police break free from the vicious cycle of low pay and respectability, leading to incompetence and abuse of power, leading back to low pay and respectability?

Rethinking police accountability

One simple solution would be to depoliticise the police force.

Given its historical role of combating the communist insurgency from 1948 to 1960 and subsequent communist threats, the police force was highly politicised from the start. This explains the huge size of the Special Branch whose function was expanded from monitoring and infiltrating only communist groups to all political enemies of the ruling coalition. It is no surprise then that appreciation of human rights has no place for the police in such a highly politicised environment.

As an important ally of the Umno’s electoral one-party state, the police force largely enjoys impunity in cases of corruption and abuse of power. And it is also no surprise that efforts to regulate the force are often seen as attempts to assault a “Malay” institution.

But rank-and-file police officers remain low-paid with meagre salaries not corresponding to the occupational risks they face. The police like to joke that they have a high “gaji mati”, referring not to their ceiling salary, but the compensation in store should they die while on duty.

The combination of low official income and largely unconstrained power naturally induces corruption — from collecting bribes to protecting different mafia groups — and makes the force institutionally dependent on more political protection.

As long as this politicisation continues, can we expect a professional police force?

Depoliticisation requires more than the removal of the current IGP or a change of federal government. Without institutional changes, the police force may remain corrupt even under a Pakatan Rakyat federal government.

What is needed here is to place the police under the Federal Constitution‘s Concurrent List (jurisdictions shared between the federal and the state governments) instead of the current Federal List in the Ninth Schedule.

In other words, the police should serve two masters — the federal and the state executives. Given Malaysia’s emerging two-party competition, the police force will be forced to depoliticise itself and end its corruption and abuse of power.

Perhaps then we may realistically talk about “police reform”. Only if such decentralisation of police power happens can we hope that Aminulrasyid will be the last victim of extra-judicial killing.

Wong Chin Huat is a political scientist by training and a journalism lecturer by trade. He wonders how many more need to die before a federal-state negotiation on police powers can start.

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13 Responses to “Saving the police”

  1. faith04 says:

    I agree with most points presented by the writer, but is our police salary truly that low? I do agree that street cops face higher risks. They should be well trained and equipped to save [the lives of others] and [look after themselves] too.

    We need to pay street police enough for the nature of their work. One professional police officer is better than three gangsters!

    In US and Taiwan, city cops are reporting to the mayor, together with City Hall and other agencies, to coordinate and maintain the peace and harmony of the city. Is this an effective way of fighting crime?

  2. Hwa Shi-Hsia says:

    Pay peanuts, get monkeys. The low salaries probably contribute not only to a lack of motivation and integrity among existing constables and lower-ranking officers, but also to making policing a very unattractive career choice for young men and women who have any better prospects. Nobody goes into an entry-level civil service job to get rich, certainly, but for many who might want to be patriotic and serve their fellow Malaysians, their good intentions might be countered by idea of such lousy pay.

    That said, I do NOT suggest raising taxes to pay for raising salaries, but rather redirecting money from mega-projects and defense (we’re not in a war! Why do we need submarines?) to more basic services such as law enforcement which are much more badly needed by the rakyat.

  3. AR says:

    Chin Huat, I commend you for telling the full story, that it’s not just about a witch hunt against the police but rather frustrations over a very deep-rooted systemic flaw.

    I think many would agree when I say that as much as I am upset over the shooting of Aminulrasyid (mostly because they so quickly branded him a criminal), I understand, too, the kind of pressures the police are under.

    For this case, it was dark, the car didn’t stop, they shot. They couldn’t have known that he was 15, but that isn’t the point, is it? If he was 25, I would still be concerned.

  4. Farouq Omaro says:

    The individual police [officer] is not at fault and should never be faulted. It is the system that needs to be corrected.

  5. Ellese A says:

    This is a [nonsensical] article. It clearly lacks logic and [has] non sequiturs. I cannot fathom how putting it under the concurrent list improves the income of police.

    For Chin Huat’s knowledge, there is a provision under the Federal Constitution which states that in the event of conflict, federal law prevails. This is basic constitution 101. Thus the state law would always be subservient to federal law. So achieving decentralization is still unrealistic. Furthermore who pays the salaries of the police? If is it the state, I cannot fathom how their salaries can be increased. For example, the state of Kelantan can’t even pay for Sultan’s medical bill but somehow Wong expects the state to increase the police force’s salaries. This is totally unrealistic and disconnected.

  6. eetish says:

    I just found your columns and I love your analysis. You put things in perspective that makes sense and truly presents a big picture. Thank you. You have gained a new reader and fan.

  7. Paul for Democracy says:

    The question of paramount importance is: can the police force be made to take an oath of allegiance to the people of Malaysia rather than serve only the “powers that be” who have very recently given them a substantial increase in their salaries and wages? The increase is in appreciation of the danger factor in their daily work. So they have become somewhat “guardians of their benefactors” … at any price??

    I am sure there are many more cases of citizens who have been treated badly by the police. What has happened to the “concealed cases”?

  8. kahseng says:

    Ouch, Chin Huat, you’ve hidden some of your best points toward the end again. At the risk of repeating your points, let me highlight some ideas:

    1. Implement IPCMC now. The fact that the police are so fearful of it must mean it will probably be effective.

    2. Split the police into the federal and state forces. (I understand Chin Huat has highlighted this at other forums.) Let the state govern the majority of the police on traffic and local security. Let the Special Branch and Bukit Aman be restructured, refocused, and re-regulated to become the Malaysian version of FBI, to overseas commercial and perhaps serious crimes that are likely to be cross-state in nature.

    3. Boost police pay, training, and equipment support. There has been a noticeable increase in police cars after Proton suffered an inventory backlog in the past 3 years. Other than that, we need to pay more for police. No, not new taxes. Just reduce big-fish corruption!

    But privatisation of security is not necessarily a bad thing. If only government would refrain from specifying the security contractors that schools and government agencies (buildings) must hire – then we can cut down on favouritism and unleash a vibrant private security industry to suit different community, commercial, and social needs.

    More importantly, private security will shrink government power, and provide conscientious police officers alternatives from an oppressive or corrupted working environment.

    Observe how private detective Balasubramaniam (the Altantuya case) who was a former Special Branch officer played a critically independent role in checking government dominance on information.

    Look how private education and health institutions become safe harbours for brilliant, independent, and dissenting minds.

    We must not assume that only government can provide security.

  9. Zed says:

    Aminulrasyid case: I think we should look at the case carefully. Let the professionals do their job. If we don’t trust them, why don’t we try to be in their shoes, then we’ll know. Who is to be blamed? The police? The boy? Answer these questions. How can an underaged boy know how to drive? Who taught him? Doesn’t that person know the boy is underaged for doing so? Why was he out at the time? Remember he’s underaged? Why did he run away from the car he accidentally scratched? Why did the policemen chase the car the boy drove? If you were the policemen on duty, would society not expect you to do so? Nobody knew it was an underaged boy driving the car, only later when he was shot. What if they were real criminals? All of us would appreciate what they’ve done. Unfortunately, it was an underaged boy.

    During my time, I was allowed to be out of the house only when there’s sun. After maghrib, it’s a big no. Parents play an important role to educate their own children. Don’t wait until something bad happens then we point fingers at other parties. We have read so many news stories about this.

    Think about it. Think about the policeman. Think about parents. How peaceful our country is if we compare it with others. I’ve lived and travelled. There is no place like Malaysia.

  10. kahseng says:

    Ellese A,

    Why should there be a conflict between federal and state laws if a new government takes over, and the legislators amend the federal law to allocate budget and power to the states to manage its local police force?

    It’s all tax payer’s money, the only questions should be who can spend less for a more professional police force.

    How come we can create RELA and keep giving it (what little) funding, offering it weapons, and potentially building up a less-disciplined security force that in the future can impinge on civil liberties, but we cannot amend archaic laws to treat the police more sensibly?

  11. chinhuatw says:

    @ Kah Seng,

    I am not as libertarian as you yet. So, I still believe in policing being a fundamental function of the state rather than leaving it to the market.

    Also, I am not specifically proposing two types of policing forces – one federal and one state although it can be an option. It can also be one single police force in a matrix organisational structure – they have to report to the Home Ministry on general guidelines and the state authorities for localised policing policies.

    I support your idea of turning SB into the Malaysian version of FBI. The core of the idea is to depoliticise the police force.

    @Elesse A

    1. I did not propose for the state to pay the police. All I am saying is to depoliticise the police by making them answerable to both the federal and state executives.

    2. Article 75 (inconsistencies between federal and state laws) which gives priority to the federal laws is not meant to nullify the Concurrent List. Otherwise, why do we have the Concurrent List in the first place? Matters in the Concurrent List include social services, town planning, housing, scholarship, drainage and irrigation, public health and prevention of diseases, and culture and sports.

    It pays to read carefully and understand the text. We may then avoid making “unrealistic” and “disconnected” comments.


    That Aminurasyid had engaged in dangerous driving is not disputed at all. What angers Malaysians is not that all those victims of state violence – whether in extra-judicial killings or custodial deaths – are innocent, but that even guilty people do not deserve to and must not die or suffer torture. Many of them commit only petty offences – beyond what is sanctioned by law after conviction in a court of law [which has] exhausted the due process.

    In other words, what angers us is the violation of rule of law. Now, rule of law must not be pitted against police’s safety here. What should it? If any police officer feels that s/he cannot uphold the rule of law, then go. You are just not fit for the job. Your occupational safety cannot be enhanced by allowing you to break the law whenever you see fit.

    To your long list of questions, I would like to add these: did the police really find a parang in the car driven by Aminurasyid? If not, who lied? Are the liars charged for obstruction of justice? To me, this is more important than asking the police to apologise. Charge all who cover up for state violence, and we may end the impunity for violence.

  12. Bakar bin Suut says:

    Jangan salahkan pihak polis dalam kes ni…..mereka hanya menjalankan tugas mereka yang diamanahkan. Budak umur yang semuda itu memandu kereta tanpa lesen juga harus kita beri pandangan sewajarnya. Fikir fikirkan bersama.

  13. Paul for Democracy says:

    With the recent revision of salaries and wages given to the police, the members of the police are now under new controllers. Who are these new controllers? Next in line are members of the armed forces. There seems to be A LOT to see in the new future!!!

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