QUESTION TIME Who decides policy in this country? Is it the police? Are we as a nation supposed to be subservient to the police and ask their permission first before we implement anything? Are they, a government department, allowed to lobby actively for what they want and even against things that Parliament has passed?

azlanThe way the police have launched a campaign for the return of the notorious Emergency Ordinance (EO), one would think that their crime-fighting abilities have been crippled as a result of the repeal of that oppressive piece of legislation. That’s far from the truth.

The Emergency Ordinance and the infamous Internal Security Act, were repealed in 2011 and replaced with the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act 2012 and changes to other laws. Together with this, the state of emergency that prevailed in this country since independence under three different proclamations was lifted.

A cursory look at the Emergency Ordinance of 1969 and some of its orders made in the aftermath of the May 13, 1969 racial riots gave considerable power to the police and government of the day to override any and all provisions with regard to personal rights. It was terribly draconian - a police state in other words where anyone could be arrested and detained.

If anyone doubts that it was indeed a police state, all one has to do is to take a look at some of the provisions when it was promulgated. Here is a sampling, especially as it relates to police powers:
  • Any police officer may arrest anyone if he is satisfied that he should be detained to preserve public order, to suppress violence or to prevent violent crimes.
  • Any person arrested can be detained in police custody for up to 60 days. He can be detained for 24 hours with the authority of an inspector or above, and up to 48 hours with the authority of an assistant superintendent and above. With a report to the inspector-general, a person can be detained for more than 30 days.
  • With the approval of the home minister, a person can be detained for up to two years.
Note that no crime need be committed before detention and that the police officer just needs to be satisfied that the person needs to be detained for the mentioned reasons. That basically gives a huge amount of discretionary power to the police. And where there is discretion, there is abuse.

It is amazing to think that this law was in existence for some 42 years, long after the conditions that caused its implementation had passed. Its counterpart, the Internal Security Act which also provided for detention without trial, was in existence for more than half a century before being repealed!

It should be noted as well that the EO was promulgated then for the express purpose of nipping any racial violence in the bud by nabbing those who might be positioned to cause trouble, especially given rising tensions at the time. For a short period of time it may have been acceptable but it should never have been prolonged for over four decades. That in itself was serious abuse.

Never intended for crime prevention

It was never intended for the prevention of normal everyday crime. In any functioning democracy which respects and protects the legitimate rights of the people, preventive detention has no place simply because of the substantial room there is for abuse.

It basically makes the police force a lazy, incompetent and even corrupt one. Lazy because, you don’t need to gather evidence - just arrest and detain. Incompetent because over time, investigation is not needed. Corrupt because people will be willing to pay not to get detained.

If the EO is given full rein and policemen and the home minister exercise all their powers under this, we are nothing more than a police state. And it has been shown repeatedly that such powers are often abused and remove the safeguards for the proper functioning of society with adequate checks and balances.

It is horrifying that newly-appointed Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi seems to be in league with the police to bring back this obnoxious piece of legislation whose only aim is to suffocate legitimate dissent against the ruling party and government and re-instill a climate of fear and apprehension to control the public.

Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak must be regretting his decision to make Zahid the home minister who seems set on undoing everything Najib had done in terms of freeing up the country and giving people back their basic rights. Zahid is also now opposed to repealing the Sedition Act. Reportedly, Najib had promised this to the cabinet.

Lobbying for the EO also involved newspapers, with The Star front-paging reports quoting anonymous police officials who strongly maintained that the repeal of the EO had made the job of the police much more difficult. Other such views were also given prominence with little coverage of opposite views.

azlanThe police is the department that is least trusted in government (see chart). Their record has been far from exemplary and death and torture in custody have been a matter of routine with no prosecution significant to the crime committed.

The police publicly fought and even threatened against the implementation of the Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC) recommended by a royal commission headed by a former chief justice which would have the power to investigate police misdeeds.

Then-prime minister Abdullah Ahmad Badawi abandoned his election promise to set up the IPCMC, and one of the major reasons was the strong, vocal objection of the police force, which went above the heads of government leaders to appeal directly to Umno.

FULL WIDTHOn top of that, police assertions that the repeal of the IO led to an increase in crimes is not substantiated by its own figures which show that crime (see chart) at first actually increased even when the EO was there and declined afterwards and even after the EO was repealed in 2012.

It would be a dire mistake to give the police back their powers under the EO, a law specifically introduced to curb racial riots. The police must simply get the evidence necessary and make their case in court if they want people put away, the way they are required to in every democratic, developed and ethical society in the world.

Anyone who supports the EO simply and unequivocally supports the establishment of a police state whereby the police can detain and restrict the movements of anyone at their complete whim and fancy. The police and the home minister may want it. The rest of us don’t.

Every Malaysian should strongly oppose such a move and give notice to the powers that be that he will not support a government that takes some of his most basic rights away from him just to keep the police and the home minister happy and satisfied.

P GUNASEGARAM is founding editor of KiniBiz.