Remember back in our school days when we’d have random spot checks? Everyone would suddenly rush to hide their phones so that the teachers wouldn’t confiscate it — or worse, make you read out all your embarrassing texts aloud in front of the class.
Fortunately, that sort of thing doesn’t happen after you finish school. Once you graduate and join the work force, nobody’s going to suddenly try to confiscate your phone or read all your private messages. Surely that would be crazy, right?
But what happens if someone claiming to be a policeman shows up and orders you to hand over your phone?
Yes, This Has Happened
On 23 May 2022, local Twitter user @SimpletonED raised a storm on social media after describing his rather disturbing encounter with the police in Cheras.
While drinking teh tarik at a mamak stall near his mother’s house, he was approached by two men in plain clothes who claimed to be policemen.
At first, it all seemed to be innocent. They asked him a few personal questions about his address, occupation and so on. But then things took a strange turn when they suddenly asked him to hand over his MyKad and mobile phone.
“I asked him why I needed to hand over my phone, but he wouldn’t give a reason. He said that he had a ‘right to check’, but wouldn’t quote any law or tell me if I had done anything wrong,” he said.
Does Anyone Else Think That This Sounds Like a Scam?
To avoid any trouble, he agreed to let them see his phone while he held on to it. However, when he opened WhatsApp, the cops immediately clicked on the search engine and tried to search through his messages.
“What happens next should scare you, Malaysians. The police officer claimed he “saw” the word ‘MKT’ used in the WhatsApp message and told me to give him the phone. I asked what was wrong. ‘MKT’, to me, stands for MARKET,” he said.
Feeling annoyed, the man put his phone away and tried to leave, only to be shocked as between six to eight more policemen showed up to try to stop him.
“They attempted to snatch my phone away many times,” he said.
Later, he was “invited” to the Cheras police headquarters, where they once again demanded that he hand over his phone despite being unable to produce any reason or warrant.
Do All Our Police Forget About The Law When The Weather Gets Too Hot?
In the end, the man was allowed to go free. The police took away his phone for “processing”, but at least they were nice enough to apologise for it?
“My time at the station was filled with just empty chat — about work, family, etc. They even offered Evian water. The officer then asked to ‘see the phone’. “I just want to see, okay?” he said. I insisted indeed he had no right, but I just gave in to not waste my time. It’s been 3 hours!… He took the phone, and told the other officers to take it for processing. After that two officers came in, made empty chat with me, and apologised for the misunderstanding. “It’s a hot day, maybe everything else is also ‘hot’,” he said,” tweeted @SimpletonED.
According to the original Twitter user, it took around an hour for his phone to be returned. There was still no mention of any sort of crime or law to explain this whole incident.
After returning home and posting the Tweets to talk about his encounter, he warned other Malaysians to be careful about running into similar problems.
“This case can happen anywhere, to anyone. Asked to check the phone, then if you don’t share, threaten to take it to the station. The question is, what are the rights as citizens when the police abuse their power by distorting the law? The police station is not a safe place. Police or Bully?”
“No police abuse here, citizen! Now move along…”
The day after the Tweets went viral, the Cheras police released an official statement denying that there had been any abuse of authority.
Cheras OCPD Asst Comm Muhammad Idzam Jaafar warned the public not to speculate further or make any assumptions that could “cause confusion”.
“The personnel on patrol suspected the man had bought an illegal lottery number via WhatsApp. They wanted to check his mobile phone but he refused to cooperate,” he said.
He explained that the reason that they searched for “MKT” was because they believed that it stood for “Magnum, Kuda and Toto”… despite the fact that the phone’s owner already explained that it actually stood for “Market”.
“We urge those with information on the incident to contact the Cheras police hotline at 03-92845050/5051, the KL police hotline at 03-21159999, or go to the nearest police station.”
So… Are The Police Actually Allowed to Take Away Your Phone?
Well, yes… and no.
Back in 2019, the Home Affairs Ministry actually posted an official statement to explain that the Royal Malaysian Police (PDRM) should not be conducting random phone checks on the public… unless the phone belongs to a suspect or someone involved in an active investigation.
However, they don’t need to take your phone away to mess with it.
According to then-Deputy Home Minister Mohd Azis Jamman, under Section 233 of the Communications and Multimedia Act 1998, the police are allowed to use any means such as phone bugging or wiretapping to ensure investigations could be carried out in cases involving security.
“It does not matter if the person is a politician, a businessman or just anyone who is suspected of having the potential to breach security issues. I believe the police will take appropriate action,” he said in response to a question about whether the police had been tapping phone communications from opposition members.
Luckily, the average Malaysian has nothing to worry about… right?
“The public should be aware of their rights during a random check, including requesting the identity of the police officer conducting the search for record purposes, in case there is a breach of the standard operating procedures (SOP),” said Jamman.
Sadly, he forgot to explain what the SOPs for this kind of situation actually are or how to tell if they were being followed. Fortunately, after a bit of digging, we managed to find some answers.
The Red Book and the Lawyer
Simply put, the Red Book is a cheat sheet explaining your basic rights as a Malaysians citizen and what you should do in order to stay safe while interacting with the police.
It was created by a lawyer group known as Tindakan Anti Penyalahgunaan Kuasa Polis (TANGKAP) and is available for free on the Malaysian Bar’s website.
As it’s meant to be shared as widely as possible, feel free to download it for yourself.
In the meantime, you can also check out other sources such as lawyer and politician Syahredzan Johan, who released a video explaining what the police are and are not allowed to do when it comes to the average joe’s mobile phone.
What To Do If You’re in This Situation?
First of all, Syahredzan confirmed the Home Affairs Ministry’s statement: the police can check your phone, but only if you are already under arrest or investigation.
“But at the same time, you’d be surprised how many officers think they have the power to randomly spot check people’s phones, and tell you that they do it because ‘nak check je’,” he said.
In some cases it may be “more prudent” to just comply and hand over your phone to avoid getting arrested for “obstruction”.
According to Syahredzan, here’s what you should do if a policeman randomly asks to check your phone:
1. Ask the police for their “kad kuasa” (This is the police’s ‘authority card’ which comes in four different colours to show their rank)
2. Ask nicely, why they want to check your phone, and what is the crime that the police is suspecting you of
3. If they insist, just give them your phone. Do not fight, but you can instead make a police report afterwards
Is This Really the Best Use Of Our Police’s Time?
The real question here is that even if the police believe that these kind of phone checks are necessary to catch criminals in the act, surely there are more efficient ways to go about it?
Putting aside the disturbing implications of having our phone calls and messages secretly wiretapped for “security purposes”, I have to admit that this whole random phone check thing seems pretty nuts.
If you’ve already got all these high tech abilities to look through our private messages, why do you need to come and kacau people who are just trying to enjoy their meals at the mamak?
After all, our police seem to be so busy lately. Perhaps if they learned to work more efficiently, they would be able to catch more criminals. Currently, things are so bad that our police don’t have time to chase after a stalker even after the victim came to the police station to file a report!
Learn more about this incident by checking out:
“Halu Pulis”: Can We Please Stop With The Victim Blaming Already?