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Whom Does the Malaysian Police Force Serve?

June 1, 2006 by  


By Farish A Noor, Muslim Media News Service (MMNS)

On Sunday the Malaysian police force was once again in its element, quelling a peaceful demonstration with the use of riot police methods, water spray and batons. The demonstrators were the first to experience the efficiency of the police as they were beaten and pummelled into submission, with several of them suffering bleeding bruises and cuts. The photos and videos of the event show clearly how a peaceful demonstration against the recent hike in petrol prices turned violent in seconds and it has to be pointed out that the ones doing the beating were the police themselves. So much for the ‘people-friendly,’ ‘reform-inspired’ new administration in Malaysia.

Yet despite the penchant for using the baton or tear gas even when it is not necessary, this is the same Malaysian police force that is ever so sensitive when it comes to having its actions put under scrutiny. For months now the butch rank and file of the force have been hesitant to allow for an Independent Police Conduct and Misconduct Complaints Comission (IPCMC) to be set up in the country, despite the fact that one of the first items in the new Prime Minister’s agenda has been to reform the country’s police force and improve its image.

That such a commission is long-called-for is evident in the long list of complaints that the Malaysian public has accumulated. Over the past decade the instances of police abuse of power have been staggering: From the arrest at gun point of the former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim in 1998 to the use of excessive force against the pro-reform movement in the following years; from numerous cases of deaths in custody to the routine compaint of corruption among the rank and file. The police have not been as efficient at stopping terrorist networks or preventing alleged terrorists breaking into arms depots and stealing weapons in broad daylight, but they have been exceedingly good at controlling the opposition and NGOs and keeping the ruling coalition in power. Something has clearly gone wrong with the Malaysian security apparatus.

The root of the problem lies in the politicization of the police force itself and how it has not only become an appendage of the state but of the ruling coalition as well. One wonders who the Malaysian police is meant to serve—the Malaysian public or the ruling political elite? There are times when the gloss wears thin and the blatantly political and politicized nature of the institution comes to the fore. After all, the police are clearly at hand during the major meetings and general assemblies of the ruling UMNO party, running the show in every way. (This is not the case when it comes to opposition party meetings, where the police attend to monitor the events and photograph those who attend.)

So deep is this instrumentalized mindset that the police do not even feel they need to disguise their links and dependency on the government anymore. As the IPCMC crisis plods along, the chiefs of police have appealed to Prime Minister Badawi not to allow such a commission to be set up as it would damage the morale of the police. Suddenly the tough men in blue seem to be shy of having themselves put in the spotlight for once.

This all came to a head when a routine blunder led to the posting of a police report (meant only for internal circulation) on the Malaysian police website this week.

The internal circular was meant to explain to the members of the police why they should collectively oppose the proposal to set up an independent commission to look into the conduct of the police. In a telling giveaway sentence, the report noted that such a commision would “cause a state of anarchy that would undermine the ruling coalition’s power” in the country.

In other words, any inquiries into police misconduct would directly lead to the weakening of the police force and consequently the weakening of the government. Nowhere has the link between the ruling elite and the institutions of the state been made more evident. So the question arises:
Whom is the Malaysian police meant to serve—the Malaysian public or the ruling political parties of the National Front coalition?

Malaysia’s dilemma is not unique, of course. Despite talk of promoting Malaysia as an economic miracle and a model developmental state, the first-world infrastructure of the country sits uneasily with a decidedly third world mind-set. Feudal power and the mechanisms of feudal rule prevail in many areas: from the allocation of contracts to the use of the police for clearly party-political ends. We have seen similar developments elsewhere in the Third World, thanks in part to the gatekeeper mentality of the ruling elite and thanks also to the personalization of power in such countries.

But Malaysia at least has the economic and material means to transform itself, and is blessed with a populace that is ready and eager for change.

Malaysia today is one of the most urbanized societies in Asia, with a cosmopolitan populace that is multicultural and multiracial. The urban space where Malaysians mostly reside today is one where class differentials have become more evident, and economic-structural issues such as inflation and the hike in gas prices have cut across the wider Malaysian public. If this public decides to act and express dismay over the economic deterioration of the country in a civil manner, can the police and political elite not oblige? The government of PM Badawi seeks to reform Malaysia into a truly developed country with a population that is mature, intelligent and reasonable. It seems that the people are already there, ahead of the police.

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