PDRM can enjoy greater trust if it takes up decentralisation as a key component in its efforts to modernise.
THE Royal Malaysia Police (PDRM) has been criticised, at times unfairly, by various sections of society. In the run-up to last Saturday’s rally, supporters of Bersih accused the police of acting in ways which discriminated against them. Accusation after accusation was hurled at the police especially on social media.
It was not just Bersih. Umno leader Datuk Seri Jamal Yunos, who is also chairman of Sungai Besar Barisan Nasional, was captured on video shouting “Polis tumbuk saya (The police punched me)” after his rough scuffle with police officers who were doing their job two weekends ago.
For a body that plays a very important role in maintaining peace and upholding the rule of law, our police certainly have their work cut out for them. They have many sides to please and every side is not easily satisfied.
But the police is a body that is too important to ignore. Certainly, it is important to ensure that the level of trust in the force does not continue to erode. No one benefits if the police loses public trust altogether.
That is why we at IDEAS commissioned a study to look into how the police can regain trust and respect from all sections of society. We published our findings by researcher Nicholas Chan recently in a paper titled “Strengthening the Royal Malaysia Police by Enhancing Accountability”.
Before we go further into the study’s recommendations, it is important to understand the context.
There are more than 150,000 police officers in Malaysia, placed in 10 departments, 14 regions, 148 police districts, and 837 police stations. They work in a very wide area ranging from traffic enforcement to anti-terrorism.
At the top of the PDRM’s hierarchy is the Inspector-General of Police (IGP). He is the one who controls all aspects of police work.
The IGP’s powers are strengthened and enhanced by a slew of laws, including the Official Secrets Act (OSA), Sedition Act, Prevention of Terrorism Act (POTA), Security Offences (Special Measures) Act (Sosma), and the recently passed National Security Council Act. The many legal instruments give him a variety of options in choosing how to act.
Being the one person who sits atop a very hierarchical and bureaucratic organisation, the IGP holds tremendous powers. With that power come responsibilities. And it is those responsibilities that make the IGP, and by extension the whole PDRM, an easy target for any type of anger.
This wide scope of powers has allowed the IGP to make controversial decisions under the guise of the law. Unfortunately, our current system does not create any real check and balance to the IGP’s powers as exercised by his officers.
Yes, in theory there are existing bodies that are supposed to play the check and balance roles. The Police Force Commission is one example. But even though the Federal Constitution empowers the commission to discipline police officers, it is chaired by the Home Minister and the IGP is a member too. The potential conflict of interest is pretty clear.
Other bodies like the Enforcement Agency Integrity Commission, Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, and the Public Complaints Bureau are supposedly able to keep the PDRM in check. But these bodies simply do not have the resources or independence to act.
These weak checks and balances are in stark contrast to police oversight mechanisms in countries such as Britain, Hong Kong and Australia which have independent oversight bodies with quite broad powers, including the power to summon the Chief Police Officer to answer for his decisions.
The oversight bodies maintain their role as investigative authorities instead of being just a disciplinary body. This creates a healthy check and balance environment, ensuring the police and the IGP cannot abuse their powers unimpeded.
In Malaysia, the Government undertook the commendable act of setting up the Dzaiddin Commission in 2004, chaired by former Chief Justice of Malaysia Tun Dzaiddin Abdullah, who is also the current chairman of IDEAS Council.
The Dzaiddin Commission proposed the establishment of the Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC) to receive, investigate and recommend a course of action for complaints about the PDRM. Our recent paper reiterates the call for the establishment of the IPCMC because we feel that this body can fill the check and balance gap.
Equally important is to decentralise the PDRM’s structure. The excessive concentration of power within the hands of the IGP should be removed and some powers should be delegated horizontally and vertically.
This would involve decentralising the PDRM’s command structure and dispersing power to local police forces and divisions. Decentralisation will help improve the overall accountability of the police force because each policing entity will serve as a potential check-and-balance mechanism against the other.
Most institutions that decentralise enjoy higher levels of public confidence simply because the people are not as worried about one person having too much power. PDRM too can enjoy greater trust if they take up decentralisation as one key component in their effort to modernise.