First published in The Star
By Wan Saiful Wan Jan, (c) 2016, The Star (c) 2016

A recent roundtable discussion brought up a thought-provoking suggestion about decentralising the police force.

Last Saturday, we at Ideas launched a campaign called #NyahKorupsi. This is the next stage of our work since last year to strengthen the fight against corruption in Malaysia. Since July 31, 2015, we have been briefing top policymakers, civil society leaders and leaders of parties in Government and Opposition about the need to undertake four major reforms.

First, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) needs to be upgraded into a constitutionally mandated Independent Anti-Corruption Commission with 15 commissioners who enjoy security of tenure.

Second, there are pans of the MACC Act 2009 that need to be amended to give more investigating powers to the relevant bodies.

Third, several Acts including the Official Secrets Act, the Whistleblower Protection Act and the Witness Protection Act, need to be amended too. And we need to introduce new laws to enable freedom of information and asset declarations.

Fourth, there is a need to strengthen the institutions of Attorney-General and Public Prosecutor by separating these two roles into different offices.

The #NyahKorupsi campaign will see us taking this message to the public, to complement the briefings that we have conducted for policymakers and thought leaders.

The Saturday event was held after a roundtable discussion that we hosted a day before, bringing together some of the country’s top legal minds to discuss the strategy we had in mind for the campaign.

The discussion raised many useful ideas and we will surely take them into consideration. I cannot reveal die details because the meeting was held under Chatham House Rules, but one delegate brought up one issue that I did not expect.

In discussing the need to separate the roles of Attorney-General and Public Prosecutor, one senior lawyer asked why are we not also looking into the role of the Inspector-General of Police (IGP)? He believed a reform of the A-G’s roles alone is insufficient.

He went on to suggest that as a federation of states, why do we even need an IGP to be the head of the police force in the country? Surely it would be better to make state police chiefs answer to the people in the states rather than to an IGP who does not have any links to the locals there.

We did not debate this issue in detail because that was not the purpose of the roundtable discussion, but it certainly did get my mind rolling.

I find this question very interesting because the delegate was right in his assertion. Many more developed federations actually do not have one person overseeing the entire country’s police force because they make the police force locally accountable.

We inherited our system from the British, but there are major structural differences. Policing in Britain has almost always been local.

There are British national bodies that coordinate national policing needs. But even a body like the National Police Chiefs Council only coordinates rather than instructs their 43 operationally independent police force members. Each police force has its own territory and they are accountable to the local people they serve, not to a police supremo sitting atop the police hierarchy.

The United States’ system is a rather complicated one. They have various national bodies to enforce laws, mainly under either the Department of Justice or the Department of Homeland Security.

Nevertheless, they do not have one person holding powers like an IGP. Each of the US states has their own head of police force and strictly speaking they do not have a boss at the federal level.

Germany too has a very decentralised police system, with defined roles given to the federal police force. As a country that had experienced the tyranny of politicians who also controlled guns under the Nazi era, Germans are very cautious about attempts to centralise powers to the national level. Hence they maintain that the bulk of policing must be done at state level.

These different systems emerged partly due to history and partly due to philosophy.

Historically, policing almost always started as a local venture. Even for Malaysia, the unified Royal Malaysian Police was only formed in 1958 and if we trace back our history, policing was indeed local.

But philosophy is what guides whether or not a country moves towards centralisation of the powers into one person. A country that is guided by individual rights, rule of law, transparency and respect for the citizens will almost always find ways to make their police force locally accountable.

Countries that keep a national IGP as the head of police force, unfortunately, are not always the ones with the best records of democratic governance. Just look for the list of countries who still have an IGP and you will see what I mean.

My key point here is, many more developed countries do not have one person as the powerful IGP. Such a decentralised system makes abuse of power less easy because no one person can wield control on all the men and women with guns in the country.

As we come closer to becoming a developed nation in 2020, should we be looking at reforming the police force too?

Wan Saiful Wan Jan is chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs.

The views expressed here are entirely the writer’s own.

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