Side Views

When will we stop being a police state? — Rama Ramanathan

April 30, 2012

APRIL 30 — It’s 3am on Monday morning. It’s nearly 48 hours since I woke up on Saturday to get ready to join the Bersih sitdown in Kuala Lumpur. It’s time to write some thoughts about that day which my mind refuses to categorise in simple black-and-white terms.

I awoke thinking of what Archbishop Desmond Tutu said on Radio 4 in the UK about 30 years ago. He spoke of walking up to white policemen in London and asking for directions even when he didn’t need to. He just wanted to enjoy the fact that he, a black man, would be helped and would be treated with respect by white policemen, who would even address him as “Sir”.

I’m thinking about Desmond Tutu, the black bishop whom all South African policemen had been directed to treat as an enemy. I’m thinking about ordinary Malaysians whom all Malaysian policemen in Kuala Lumpur had been directed to treat as enemies.

I’m in my fifties. I was born and brought up in a small town in Johor. My father was an interpreter in the magistrate’s court. We lived in government quarters, behind the police station. Many of our family’s friends worked for the police.

We treated policemen with honour. We knew some had died or been seriously injured and at times maimed for life in the line of duty: arresting burglars, busting up gambling dens, breaking up drug cartels, defeating communist insurgents. We knew some who were corrupt, some who roughed up people, some who were lazy; but we did not consider the whole force to be of questionable character.

My wife’s father retired as an assistant superintendent of police in the Special Branch after spending many years fighting communists. He received letters of commendation from the Inspector-General of Police. His brother died in the line of (communist) fire. Many of my wife’s relatives were in the force.

I’ve often been treated well by the police. When first my father, then my mother died, both at home, in Selangor, of old age, I went to the police station to report their deaths. I then accompanied a policeman to my home to confirm my parents were in fact dead, and that there were no suspicious circumstances. The “men in blue” showed me great sympathy — the person who took my report, the person who accompanied me home, the person who typed the death certificate, the person who handed it to me.

After Bersih 2.0, I wrote a piece which was sympathetic to the police. Many criticised me for it, but I stand by what I said. The bad behaviour of some should not cause us to berate all: just as my behaviour on the streets of KL on Saturday should not be considered the same as the behaviour of a few protesters who acted badly. Rather, we should ask “how do we avoid bad behaviour in the future?”

It’s too simplistic to say — like Malaysia’s ruling junta does — “don’t protest again,” for protest is a legitimate avenue of expression: Umno Youth leaders have led protests in Malaysia, often to foreign missions, to hand over letters, petitions, etc. Marches and rallies are an integral part of the democratic process. I’ve seen rallies in Italy, the UK, the US. The police are always there, accessible to all, actively keeping order.

What I saw of the police on Saturday was sad. The policemen had been directed to stay aloof from the public. They were there not as partners in a democratic state, but as “good guys” demonstrating that they, as “big brothers”, were watching us “evil guys”.

The police positioned themselves in lines designed to show cameras and the public that they were restrained, strong and prepared. Police cameramen showed themselves active everywhere, ensuring we knew our faces were being recorded. [I paused and looked into the lens of every police camera, to show I was not intimidated.]

I and many I spoke with felt sad for the police. We felt sad that they were under the orders of masters who are so like the South Africans elites who hated Desmond Tutu. We felt a bond of humanity with the men in blue. We were sorry they had to stand inactive in the sun. We were sorry the police logistics were so poor that some policemen (behind the razor wire close to the Bar Council) could not be supplied with food and drink: we watched “supply vehicles” doing a U-turn after failing to deliver the goods. We have now seen the videos of the police acting brutally. We’ve seen groups of men in blue kicking and punching lone individuals. These videos will never be shown in the mainstream media; these stories will never be told in the mainstream media.

We know many leaders of Umno-BN are Internet savvy. We know they have seen the videos of police brutality. We know they will not comment on these videos, so we will have to. We will have to address what happened, because the ruling junta will not.

Why did the police behave as they did? I think they did so because they have been trained to think in black-and-white terms. They’re in uniform, they’re the good guys. We’re not in uniform, we’re the bad guys. They work for the prime minister, home minister, and (de facto) law minister who know what others don’t and who know best what’s good for all.

However, the policemen on the ground would have noticed that the vast majority of us were not menacing towards them. If the police have the capability to identify us from the photos they will know that many of us who showed up on that hot Saturday are CEOs, senior general managers, company directors, regional directors and vice-presidents, pastors, lawyers, teachers.

If the policemen look closely, they will see the message on the T-shirts: what we want are free and fair elections. We don’t want anarchy. We want the Election Commission out, because we think they work hand in hand with the government of the day to manipulate the elections to enrich and entrench the current corrupt regime.

The police saw how we behaved. They’ve now seen that the mainstream media reports are only one part of the story. They saw that we were peaceful, not violent; that we acted as fellow citizens, not as enemies of the state; that we treated them with respect.

We must not call all cops bad just because of the antics of a few inflamed cops. The cops must not call all of us bad just because of a few inflamed protesters.

The cops must ask themselves: what can they do better next time? How can they repair their image? Through public relations blitzes and media manipulation, or through simple acts of respectful service? Can they do better by being on active duty during protests, patrolling in pairs, assisting the public, rather than standing in lines of intimidation?

What new practices will the police implement to show they understand protest is part of democracy? How will the police respond to the public’s pleas that we want to be their partners, not their enemies?

What kind of country do we want to be? What’s missing in our measures of progress? How can we partner with the cops? When will we stop being a police state?

* This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of The Malaysian Insider.