Growing up watching Gerak Khas and having family members as police officers, I wanted to become a police officer myself when I was six. The ambition only changed because I found physical exercises too tiring and preferred talking, sitting, and snacking instead, all of which I didn’t think fit with the job description. Regardless, I still held high opinions towards police officers. After all, they were the good guys. They arrest bad guys and keep everyone safe. But as I grew older and realised that the world is not black and white, my views on police officers too, changed. Increasing insights on cases of police brutality globally showed me, and the world at large, that when power is given to the wrong people with lack of scrutiny, things can get ugly real quick.
Cases in 2020
While there were many cases of police brutality worldwide this year with perhaps the most prevalent case being the death of George Floyd in May, there were sinister and troubling cases even back home. Arguably the biggest case that put Malaysia on the global pedestal was the raid on Al-Jazeera’s office on the 4th of August following a documentary by the news agency on the treatment of migrants in Malaysia during the outbreak of the pandemic. The raid was only one act in a series of protests from authorities which included the arrest and deportation of an immigrant who was interviewed in the documentary. The polices’ act was backed by authorities and legislation under the Communications and Multimedia Act for defamation and sedition. This led to outrage from the international community including Amnesty International and the Community to Protect Journalists, all ignored by the Malaysian government. It is uncanny that the violent crackdown by the authorities only solidified the claims made against them, the very ones which they are trying to deny.
On the topic of death in custody, between 2002 and 2016, there were 257 deaths reported by the Home Ministry. However, only a quarter of that number is made known to the public. This year alone saw multiple cases being brought to light. The pandemic arguably worsened the situation when it was used as an excuse not to carry out a post-mortem on the deceased G Jestus Kevin who passed away in custody in Bentong early April. The death of V. Mugilarasu in July while being held in Sungai Buloh prison also raised concerns when the deceased’s brother who identified the body noticed bruises, swellings in the arm, and bloodstains in the mouth of the remains.
More recently, in a heartbreaking case prior to Deepavali, 29 Malaysian-Indian men were detained for two months by the police despite the court’s order to release the men. In late September, the group was arrested after a shooting incident near a school in Banting. When that failed, the group was rearrested for a murder that happened in 2016. At least two magistrates have disallowed the remand. SUARAM consequently accused PDRM of practising ‘chain remand’ — a series of arrests under different charges to circumvent limitations. On 13 November, PDRM released a statement that their investigations found that the 29 men were part of an illegal mafia society, and their detainment is justified for the harmony of society. Even if this is true, it is doubtful that such ‘convincing evidence’ did not hold up in court and thus should not be depended on especially for charges that will affect the lives of these individuals long term.
The Ties to Race
Earlier this year I was invited to the birthday party of a Qatari friend who is currently pursuing tertiary education in Malaysia. My plus one and I were the only Malaysians there, with everyone else largely coming from Egypt, Nigeria, and Bangladesh. While waiting for the birthday boy to arrive (it was a surprise party), I quickly made friends with everyone else. Though I knew nobody beforehand, their politeness and friendliness made it easy to interact with them. It was particularly hilarious when I found out that they were all part of the international student body in their university. Two of their lecturers even attended the party! Safe to say, it was the most decent and law-abiding adult birthday party I ever attended. I asked them what it was like to study in Malaysia and their responses broke my heart.
“We would get pulled over for no reason, and if we didn’t have our identity cards with us, we would be threatened to be jailed. One of us would plead, and the police officer would ask if we had money. So we would just pay. One time, we did have our identity cards, he took one look at it and threw it to the ground then walked away.”
“I remember one time my friends and I were just stopped and the police officer immediately asked us ‘where are the drugs?’ We were so confused, especially since none of us actually do drugs. He searched us thoroughly, even cutting open all our cigarettes to make sure. He was so angry when he didn’t find anything.”
“My visa expired but I carried with me a letter from the embassy explaining that it was being renewed. I showed it to the police officer but he would not have it. He asked me to get in the car and started to raise his voice and threatened me. I called a Malaysian friend and after a while I was released. It was so scary.”
I grew up hearing people say Malaysians are a friendly lot. That day I realised, we were only friendly to certain foreigners, who looked rich, clean, mostly whites.
It’s easy to think “No, this isn’t about race.” Only there’s no other explanation for the rudeness that these students experienced. Would a Malay be treated the same way? Doubted and threatened just for how they looked? When our students are harassed overseas for being different either for their religion or race, we cry out and protest. At home, we do the same to these foreign students.
Should we be surprised at all? I mean, systemic racism exists amongst our own people, so why should we treat others any better?
We cannot rule out that the three cases of police brutality outlined above had links to racism as well. The Al-Jazeera raid can be viewed as police trying to silence attempts made to bring light on racism against immigrants in Malaysia. Though there are more Malays who died in custody, the fact that Malaysian-Indians who make up just under 7% of Malaysia’s population comprised almost a quarter of official deaths in custody shows that there is a disconcerting link between race and death in custody. Finally, PDRM’s unfounded belief that the 29 detainees are in fact criminals could be based on the generalisations that Malaysian-Indians are violent people. As ugly as it sounds, it is important to look into the mirror and seriously consider these notions. It is only through acknowledgements that we can move forward.
I would sound like a broken record but genuinely the first step is to talk about these issues. We do not and should not wait for police brutality to be caught on camera like it did with George Floyd before standing up in solidarity with all those who have suffered. Racism should not be a taboo topic in Malaysia. Standing up against authorities should not come with the fear of being caught. Not acknowledging such issues would prevent any solution from being reached. We need to have discussions, real discussions, on how we are treating minorities in Malaysia and the unchecked power we give to authorities. How do we increase accountability and transparency in PDRM? More importantly, how do we solve the issue of systemic racism in Malaysia, not just to avoid police brutality but other types of inhumane acts in Malaysia by authorities and individuals alike? Why is it so that after six decades, we continue to focus on the differences of skin colour and cultural practices rather than the glaring similarity that we are all humans?
The pandemic came and hopefully will one day leave. But the people of Malaysia are here to stay. Life continues. We have allowed systemic racism to flourish in Malaysia for too long. We cannot hide behind the veil of the pandemic any longer, claiming it as a reason to not address issues as dire as police brutality and systemic racism in the country. The irony is that our people are hurting and dying at our own hands. Their voices must be heard.
By: Zulaikha binti Zainal Efendi
Vice President of Advocacy 2019/2020