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 groupWhat 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?
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.
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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