Malaysia’s Royal Police Defy Their Boss

The police establishment fights to fend off a royal commission’s recommendations on police brutality

The Royal Malaysian Police have brought a blue-ribbon police commission  to a standstill over allegations of corruption, custodial death, excessive force against peaceful demonstrators and a generally trigger-happy culture.  Among other things it was the police that were held responsible for the vicious beating of opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim when he was in custody in 1998. Abdul Rahim Noor, the head of the force, resigned in 1999, saying he would assume “full responsibility” for the beating.

These concerns led Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, who succeeded Mahathir Mohamad as prime minister in March 2004, to shock the nation by using his first public initiative in office to take on the police. Widely known as a polite and courteous leader, the new prime minister announced the formation of a Royal Malaysian Police Commission, with the endorsement of the king. Although the royal commission, formed of some 20 prominent personalities from all walks of life in Malaysia, was supposed to conclude its findings in 2005, another year passed before a long list of recommendations was presented. Among others, the royal commission called for the creation of an Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC), an idea immediately endorsed by the prime minister and his cabinet.

But over the last year, the complaints commission has been dead in the water. The top brass of the police have delivered 15 pages of objections against the IPCMC, alleging unfair treatment and undue scrutiny, especially because the proposed body would not allow incriminated officers the possibility of appeal. More ominously, the officials have suggested that should the government proceed with the police commission, there is no guarantee that it could count on the electoral support of the police force, which numbers some 80,000 members -- only about one fifth less than the Malaysian army, navy and air forces combined.

The role of the police in Malaysia has always been unique. They have been a mainstay of the government, a British colonial institutional edifice right down to the brass and rank that has for five decades ensured the security of the ruling regime. It has always commanded the appreciation and perhaps the approbation of the government, and in turn has duly pledged full loyalty to the Barisan Nasional, the ruling coalition that has run Malaysian politics since the country’s inception, and in particular pledged full loyalty to the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the leading party in the coalition. Yet, not much is known about the police force, especially the nature of the Special Branch, the secretive investigative wing, or for that matter, the anti-riot police force that falls under it.

The police response has had opposition leaders like Lim Kit Siang speaking of outright defiance. Nonetheless, Musa Hassan, the new Inspector General Police, has announced that he wouldn’t endorse the IPCMC either. Musa has called for a far-reaching upwards revision of police rank-and-file salaries. Thus even before the prime minister had a chance to tell the inspector general what his priorities should be, the tables already had been turned publicly against the executive branch.

To be sure, police officer salaries may yet be revised, along with certain provisions of the police commission statute to allow fairer representation. But the open resistance of the RMP has led to concerns on the part of many observers both and out of the Malaysian civil service over Badawi’s relative weakness. During the reign of the firebrand former premier Mahathir Mohammad, many political observers say, such defiance would have been unthinkable. The RMP was there to serve the government. It was inconceivable that the recommendations of a royal commission would be opposed.

The standoff between the police and the Malaysian government is not serious as yet. Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi continues to wield considerable powers. He is minister of internal security as well as finance minister and thus in charge of the police force. He should be able to easily call on a wide range of powers and incentives to silent dissent.

Nevertheless, if the situation is allowed to persist, concerns are rising as to whether Abdullah Badawi commands the necessary clout to push through his reforms, not just in the police force but throughout the government. This is due to his Badawi's perceived weakness as having blinked too often against those who dared to stand up to him.

So far, with national elections another two and a half years away, there is no indication that the police force and their supporters will become a swing bloc in the electoral process country. Nor would the force necessarily have the ability to command their officers as to how to vote.

But with salaries stagnant and morale low, there is no telling if a majority of officers would indeed vote against the government out of their own frustration-- ironically over how little reform the government has delivered especially in lifting not only the welfare of the Royal Malaysia Police but revising the rules that govern it.

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