When Law Enforcers Become Law Breakers
The death of A. Kugan has grabbed headlines and shocked the nation. The continuing controversy around his death under suspicious circumstances in police custody is just another sad symptom of the dysfunctions that plague our country: those who enforce the law have become the law-breakers. The British bequeathed us an effective civil service, a proud judiciary, and a capable police force. Thanks to decades of disrespect and apathy, none of these institutions can now hold their heads high.
For years we have all known that our once efficient civil service was slowly breaking down. Money or connections slowly but surely became a necessity to get past any government red tape. Long lunch breaks and poorly staffed offices became the norm. When Prime Minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi took over in 2003, there was actually a sigh of relief just because he was willing to acknowledge the immense problems that plague our once erstwhile civil service.
The judges, who supposedly arbitrate the law without fear or favour, have only seen their reputation tarnished more and more over the years. Even before the constitutional crisis of 1988, our best judges were reluctant to uphold the basic rights our Federal Constitution guarantees us; as our Foreign Minister Rais Yatim documents in his PhD thesis, Freedom Under Executive Power in Malaysia, 1988 just affirmed what had been the true state of things all along: what the executive wants, the executive will get, the rights of Malaysians and the rule of law be damned.
As for the police, it has likewise been a similar tale of sliding into ignominy. It is hard for someone from my generation to believe, but there was a time when you could trust the men and women who swore to enforce the law of our land. Throughout the communist emergency, and for years afterward, our brave Royal Malaysian Police force served and protected us from calamity after calamity. But as the civil service grew lax about its work, and as the courts began to be corrupted, there was nothing to be done. The police have now fallen to the level where the only thing we expect when stopped by an officer is to be asked for a bribe, and where we are wont to suspect wrongdoing whenever the police are involved.
Kugan's case is the straw that broke the camel's back. Just as the Anti-Corruption Commission's investigations revealed massive corruption throughout the public sector, and just as the Royal Commission of Inquiry confirmed that the top arbitrators of our laws were blatantly swindling the people and perpetuating injustice, we are now seeing a backlash against the police force's betrayal of our trust. The Malaysian people have had it with the tarnishing and tainting of the institutions we were once so proud of.
Home Minister Syed Hamid Albar's characterisation of this as the public's irrational belief that the police are always demons and criminals are always heroes only demonstrates how out of touch our government is with the laws and institutions it supposedly administers. It is precisely because we want our police to be our heroes that we are making such a ruckus. Are we to now say that Malaysians hate elections, because two years ago they took to the streets to protest the clearly biased way in which we conduct our democracy?
If the people of Malaysia can no longer trust the men and women who have sworn to uphold and enforce the laws of our land, the problem is not with the people. The problem lies with the people's government—the government that has chosen again and again to ignore the corruption of our most basic and cherished institutions. Just as it opted so many times in the past to hush up rumours of corruption in the civil service and judiciary, the government is once again trying to silence a simple fact: Malaysians no longer trust the institution of the police.
A country cannot long function without institutions it can place its trust in. As soon as we become dependent on the personal goodwill of those in power, instead of being able to trust in the impartiality and objectiveness of our institutions, we find ourselves living under tyranny instead of democracy. The Malaysian people have spoken loudly and clearly, again and again: we want our democracy. We want our cherished institutions back. We want to be proud of our civil service, of our courts, of our policemen and women once more.
As long as the government continues to ignore the dissolution of our institutions, it can continue to count on the Malaysian people giving it a sound whipping at the ballot box and on the streets. This is our country; these are our institutions. If you refuse to uphold the laws and the Constitution you have sworn to uphold, if you insist on betraying the trust which we have placed in you, you will get what is coming to you.
First published in The Malaysian Insider.