by Tricia Yeoh. First published in The Sun Daily Online 4 September 2014

I spent the Merdeka weekend writing a paper on the choppy relationship between the Barisan Nasional-led federal and Pakatan
Rakyat-led state governments. In it, I traced the brief history since 2008 of the many instances in which the federal and opposition state governments of Penang and Selangor clashed over competing interests and contested areas of jurisdiction.

It was rather apt, then, that 157 members of the Voluntary Patrol Unit (PPS, or the Pasukan Peronda Sukarela), a voluntary organisation set up by the Penang state government, were arrested on Sunday after having participated in a Merdeka march-past event.

The PPS itself was set up in 2011, with the objective of community patrolling to increase security measures in Penang, and boasts a membership size of 10,000 at present. The government’s decision to arrest these members, including its chairperson (who also happens to be a Penang state exco member), is based on the claim that the PPS is an illegal organisation as it is not registered with the Registrar of Societies (ROS). The irony is that their patrols actually have police involvement, and it is the police that signs off their patrol logbooks.

Although the government may be playing strictly to the letter of the law, this is a slippery slope along which one may easily fall. What this precedence sets is this: that any organisation not registered with the ROS could very easily be hauled up if it ruffles the feathers of the powers that be.

Again, strictly speaking, it is true that according to the constitution, law enforcement falls under the jurisdiction of the federal government. The ninth schedule, which lays out the responsibilities of the different layers of government, explicitly states that all matters of internal security, including police and public order, are to be carried out by the federal government.

Despite the law being what it is, it can be argued that Penang’s move of setting up its own organisation is in fact an attempt to restore community-based voluntarism. This is akin to the spirit of semangat kejiranan (neighbourliness) that government campaigns have often tried to instill in us, and equivalent to the use of Rukun Tetangga (neighbourhood groups) within residential areas as a way to combat increasing crime.

The PPS is, after all, an unarmed group made up of Penang’s own residents, whose main activities consist of directing traffic, assisting the public in times of disaster and to patrol the streets as a preventive measure against crime. They carry walkie-talkies, not weapons. In fact, functions such as arrests and levying charges against criminals would still be left very much to the domain of the police and judiciary, both institutions under the federal government’s watch.

The federal government does have a similar though not exact entity, The People Volunteer Corps (RELA), which is legally registered with the Ministry of Home Affairs. If the Penang government were to have requested for its PPS to be legally and officially registered, would the Ministry of Home Affairs have granted approval for its set up?

In the past when both the Selangor and Penang Pakatan state governments made written requests to the federal police to allow them to set up auxiliary police forces under the Petaling Jaya Municipal Council (MBPJ) and the Penang City Council (MPPP), this was categorically denied. Despite this, MBPJ did set up a small outfit with only 20 auxiliary policemen, but their powers were only restricted to guarding council buildings. Given these constraints, Selangor has had to resort to only meagre measures like funding CCTVs on streets, or providing additional streetlights in dark corners, to contribute to safety measures for its own residents.

The federal government exercises a highly centralised system of administration. The problem with this is it does not allow for organic mobilisation of existing resources to solve a public problem. The same could apply for any number of public services, such as public transport, commerce and industry, and education, all of which should only be managed by the federal government, if one were to follow the constitution strictly. Should the federal government therefore, by the same argument, arrest members of the Selangor and Penang Transport Councils, or shut down Universiti Selangor (a state-linked university)?

Clamping down on grassroots-formed organisations not only leaves very little room for both local and state governments to participate in local democracy, but it also does not respect the freedom of association – as guaranteed by Article 10 of the federal constitution – for individuals to choose to set up or be part of a non-formal entity. We encourage citizens to be part of non-governmental organisations to play a certain public service to the country, but yet trample on these intentions when they do participate. It is clear that there are political innuendos behind this recent incident.

Although Merdeka Day was anything but celebratory, there is still Malaysia Day to look forward to, during which Malaysians ought to recall the spirit of federalism under which this nation was formed. It is at this time that we respect the various states of Malaysia that form our federation, and perhaps even respect their ability to govern in the way they were voted in to do.

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Tricia Yeoh is the COO of IDEAS

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