Imagine for a moment that you’re living in a country where Manchester United fans are treated as second class citizens.
Every morning, you look at the news and wonder if you’re going to see a video of a fellow Man U fan getting shot. Every time you go outside, you’re worried about getting attacked by some guy who doesn’t like your football team. And the worst part is that even if you do get killed, odds are your murderers are going to get away with it cause even the judges prefer Arsenal to Manchester United.
This fear is what black people in America have been living with for years. In fact, it’s even worse. Because unlike a football fan, black people don’t get to choose their own colors.
But Getting Back On Point…
Despite our relatively peaceful history, Malaysians are no strangers to riots either. I’m sure we’ve all heard of the May 13 incident – the biggest racial riot in our country’s history – but there have also been several other events over the years.
One such incident happened in the small village of Kampung Medan back in 2001, when a simple scuffle between an ordinary Malay and Indian family ended in a no-holds-barred street brawl between both communities. The incident ended with 6 people dead and 24 hospitalized. In the aftermath, the police arrested no less than 183 people, including Malays, Indians, and Indonesians. There was a big outcry, with many professionals arguing that the entire incident could have been avoided if the government had been more attentive.
“This delay in taking action reveals a serious credibility problem surrounding our law enforcement and security forces,” wrote SUARAM advisor Dr Kua Kia Soong in a 2012 article. “It is the duty and responsibility of the police and security forces to apprehend the thugs and to unmask the hidden hands and reveal their agenda.”
More recently, Malaysians of all races staged a massive protest during the Bersih rallies in 2016. News portal Malaysiakini estimated around 40,000 protesters marched through the streets of KL, calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Najib Razak over the whole 1MDB scandal, among other issues.
The rally itself was fairly peaceful, and the crowds dispersed around 5.30pm, but not everyone got to enjoy a happy ending. In the aftermath, there were quite a few arrests, including PKR vice-president Tian Chua, activist Hishamuddin Rais, and cartoonist Fahmi Reza.
“We also arrested a 49-year-old man for flying a drone under Section 143 of the Domestic Flight Rules, a 33-year-old man for possessing a parang and bronze knuckles, and another 33-year-old man for kicking a man believed to be a Bersih supporter,” said Kuala Lumpur police chief Amar Singh.
Yet despite all this, the Bersih rally was a mostly peaceful affair. There were no big riots or fires or clashes between police and protesters. Keeping that in mind, what’s the big difference between our Bersih rally and the current riots in America? Why did our own big protests end peacefully while the Justice For George Floyd protests spiraled out of control?
Malaysians Trust Our Police
Even though Malaysian people like to complain about the police (and the MCO, food, football teams, the weather, and… look, some of us just like complaining, alright?), the majority of us still have trust in the police.
If some criminal broke into our house or tried to rob a 7/11 or started a fight on the streets, we have faith that we can call the police and rest assured knowing that they can handle the situation. After all, that’s their job – to keep the peace and uphold the laws.
This trust is the biggest difference between our Malaysian police and their American counterparts.
I cannot understate how important this trust, this faith in the integrity of our law enforcement institutions, can be. If the Malaysian police had behaved anything like the police in America, if our police did not have the people’s trust, I don’t think the Bersih rally would have been anywhere near as peaceful.
The Breaking Point
One thing you need to understand is there have been plenty of warning signs. All of these factors have been simmering in the background for years.
Once you realize how the black American community has spent literal years trying and failing to fix this issue peacefully (anyone remember Black Lives Matter? The peaceful protests and the black athletes kneeling for the national anthem?), it honestly seems like a tragedy. This whole issue could have been solved so many years ago if only the American police were willing to behave like the professional police force that they’re supposed to be.
Whenever this kind of police brutality occurs in the US, you tend to get a bunch of people coming out of the woodwork to cry that their police forces are actually good, that “it’s just a few bad apples”!
Yet the bad apples have hardly ever been punished. In fact, they’ve been allowed to remain for so long that they’ve turned the entire barrel rotten.
So Why George Floyd?
George Floyd’s death wasn’t an “unfortunate mistake”. It wasn’t a heat of the moment shooting. It was a cold blooded murder – a deliberate, drawn out affair where an unarmed, already handcuffed and restrained guy was choked to death in the middle of the street by the very same people who were supposed to be maintaining the laws of the land.
Even the most die-hard police fan would find it difficult to argue when presented with the 8 minute long video of a police officer blatantly, brutally murdering someone who posed absolutely no threat to him.
As horrible as it is, the COVID-19 pandemic has also played a part. Right now, there are no “breads and circuses” to keep people busy. Normally, people are afraid to protest because they need to go to work, they’re afraid of getting arrested because they need to take care of their families. But with unemployment skyrocketing and the economy in shambles, more and more Americans are looking around and asking themselves “What have we really got to lose at this point?”
But What About Here in Malaysia?
If you try searching for “Malaysian police shootings”, the list is actually pretty small. In fact, the most recent incident involved a Malaysian traffic policeman firing two shots after a car driver attempted to run him over. The policeman didn’t even aim at the driver, but tried to shoot out the car’s tyres – a stark contrast to the long, bloody list of Americans killed by the very officers who were supposed to protect them.
To put it simply, the odds of these kinds of mass riots happening in Malaysia are slim at best – because while our cops aren’t perfect, at least they’re not a bunch of trigger happy idiots.
So What’s the Situation in Malaysia Today?
Currently, there has been a lot of police activity in the country due to the MCO. Over the past few months, we’ve had police officers doing everything from setting up roadblocks to chasing after people breaking curfew.
Yet even though the police have been so busy, the vast majority of Malaysian citizens have remained supportive of their efforts. Heck, back during the first few weeks of MCO I remember when people were actually urging the police to be harsher on those going out and potentially spreading the disease.
“Cakap baik baik, tak nak dengar,” was a line I heard more than a few times during that period.
Even when the army was brought in to support the police, the general feeling seemed more like grumbling acceptance than anything else. “See, this is what happens when people don’t listen,” one of my older relatives posted on social media. “The police are being too nice, so all these idiots think they can get away with it.”
In fact, our country’s crime rate has actually halved during the MCO period because so many people have been listening to the police’s orders to stay home. Last month, Bukit Aman Criminal Investigations Department director commissioner Huzir Mohamed revealed that during the MCO period, a total of 971 cases of violence had occurred – a drop of 50.7% compared to the 1,971 cases that occurred during their baseline period.
Relations Haven’t Always Been So Rosy
Today, the vast majority of Malaysians feel appreciative for our front liners. Our police have been working night and day since day 1 of MCO, and they’ve behaved in a firm yet professional manner during this entire stressful period.
But things haven’t always been so friendly between the police and the rakyat. Though they’ve never been as blatant as the American cops (to be fair, it’s pretty hard to top choking someone to death in public), in the past there have been a number of “unfortunate accidents” that have happened to people under police custody.
Take the example of N. Dharmendran, who officially died of an “asthma attack” while in custody – despite a later investigation revealing that he had suffered from multiple blunt force traumas.
And Dharmendran’s not the only one either. According to official statistics provided by the Home Ministry, between 2002 and 2016, there were 257 deaths in police custody – yet only nine police officers have been charged for custodial deaths since 2008.
Don’t Let Malaysia Become Another America
George Floyd’s death was a tragedy, but if there’s any lesson that we can take away from it, it’s this: without accountability, there can be no trust.
While it is important to respect the police, at the same time we must be willing to hold them accountable whenever they make a mistake. Up till today, our government has yet to finalize the Independent Police Complaints of Misconduct Commission (IPCMC) Bill – a bill that was originally proposed all the way back in 2005!
In the past, members of the police force have criticised the bill, arguing that exposing police scandals to the public will weaken the police and tarnish their image. While we still have no idea when or if the IPCMC will come into effect, organizations such as HAKAM are available for Malaysians who are dealing with police brutality.
Founded under the leadership of two of Malaysia’s former Prime Ministers (Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj and Tun Hussein Onn), HAKAM is a registered human rights society that aims to promote, preserve, and defend human rights in Malaysia. You can contact them through their website HERE.