Politics and Policy: Scrutiny of police conduct at an impasse for now

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on November 4, 2019 - November 10, 2019.

Photo by Kenny Yap/The Edge

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EFFORTS to turn the spotlight on the police over deaths in custody and during encounters have remained inconclusive even after a decade of official engagement.

Now, the Pakatan Harapan government, which came to power on the promise of a reform agenda, is getting a newly established parliamentary select committee to vet a bill to check the powers of the force. The draft law was tabled in the current sitting of parliament.

So far, the Independent Police Complaints of Misconduct Commission (IPCMC) Bill has met with a chorus of objections from opposition parliamentarians and public interest groups.

In drafting the bill to address public concern over impunity in the force, the government had to meet the police halfway, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Liew Vui Keong tells The Edge in an interview.

“When we were discussing with the police [the scope of] this bill, the police made a special request [to include provisions for the force’s welfare]. We came up with a compromise. Okay, we are going to do that because the police are not happy that we have an external independent body such as the IPCMC to look into [complaints of] their misconduct,” he says.

According to Liew, the IPCMC is the first independent police commission in the world to also look into welfare issues as police personnel have voiced their unhappiness over the unsatisfactory condition of government-provided facilities such as living quarters.

The bill has become a bone of contention between the government on the one hand and opposition lawmakers, backbenchers and public watchdog groups on the other.

A major grouse is that the proposed commission’s powers do not extend beyond initial investigations, thus rendering it ineffective as a deterrent to misconduct.

As the proposed law stands, the IPCMC will first investigate complaints and allegations of misconduct, Liew says. If an offence under the Penal Code is found to have been committed, the IPCMC will then refer the matter to the police for further investigation.

Similarly, in cases of corruption, the IPCMC will refer them to the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission.

Liew says in either case, the attorney-general will study the evidence before deciding whether to press charges.

The IPCMC will look into serious allegations of misconduct such as deaths in custody, rather than minor disciplinary violations, he says.

As Liew sees it, the Enforcement Agency Integrity Commission (EAIC) — which was set up in 2009 by the Barisan Nasional government to oversee 21 enforcement agencies, including the police — is inefficient, as it can only make recommendations but does not have the power “to get on the complaints”.

Opposition to the bill has also come from current and former members of the police force. In May, outgoing Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Mohamad Fuzi Harun expressed the opposition of the force to the plan to transfer its disciplinary power over police personnel to the IPCMC.

A year after the historic change of government in the 14th general election, the police finally agreed that it was time for the IPCMC to be established. In July, the IPCMC Bill was tabled.

When the bill was due to be tabled for a second reading early last month, pressure group Citizens Against Enforced Disappearances (CAGED) slammed the proposed legislation as being even weaker than the EAIC, which it is slated to replace.

“If the EAIC is a toothless tiger, Monday’s IPCMC [Bill] is a toothless, limbless tiger, since it has even less investigative powers than the EAIC,” the non-governmental organisation says in a statement a day before the second reading of the bill.

CAGED’s criticism echoes that of a memorandum by public interest group Lawyers for Liberty in September, which calls for the bill to include all the strongest aspects of the EAIC Act and recommends several other measures of its own.

On Oct 8, parliamentary history was made when the bill was referred to the special select committee on the consideration of bills. It is the first time that parliament has referred a bill to a committee, which will review 24 amendments to the bill.

The select committee is chaired by Bukit Gelugor MP Ramkarpal Singh of the DAP and includes Pengerang MP Datuk Seri Azalina Othman Said of Umno, who is a former minister in the Prime Minister’s Department.

Liew says most amendments to the bill are related to their phrasing and eight of them deal with the core issue of the bill — which includes the power of the prime minister to appoint the IPCMC commissioners and allowing the select committee on public appointments to evaluate the prime minister’s candidate.

As things stand, the select committee will hold four public consultations on the IPCMC in various parts of the country from now until Nov 10. It has until Nov 18 to table its report on the matter to Dewan Rakyat.

In a further sign that the government is keen to pacify the police, who are not in the mood to be scrutinised, it might change the name of the commission to a more positive-sounding Independent Police Conduct Commission, says Liew. “Some opposition leaders have told me the reason why they did not want to implement the commission during the BN administration ... they feared they would lose the support of police personnel.”

According to Liew, police personnel only number around 150,000, compared with the total electorate of 22.7 million who will be eligible to participate in the 15th general election.

Liew says he has been in “countless consultations” on the IPCMC with stakeholders such as the Bar Council, non-governmental organisations and various police associations.

The IPCMC was first proposed in 2005 by the Royal Commission to Enhance the Operation and Management of the Royal Malaysian Police to address issues such as police brutality, custodial deaths and cover-ups.

In September last year, Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad announced that the EAIC would be converted into the IPCMC as most of the complaints were on police conduct.

 

Reform agenda on track?

On the government’s reform agenda, Liew says the process has started and the government is committed to repealing draconian laws such as the Sedition Act.

However, he says as different laws come under the purview of different ministries, his ministry can only step in when they have done the groundwork.

He says the Home Ministry has to look at a law to repeal the Sedition Act 1948. Once Home Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin has done the necessary work, the repeal of the law will come under Liew’s ministry. “When that is done, I will take over because there are certain parts in the act that we need to preserve, especially those with regard to the royal institution. We do not want people to make seditious remarks against our royal institution because we are a constitutional monarchy.”

This process will take time as the Home Ministry needs to engage with the relevant stakeholders on the matter.

Liew estimates that the law will be repealed in March, at the first sitting of parliament for next year.

On the Dangerous Drugs Act 1952, which has custodial and capital punishments in place, Liew says it comes under the Ministry of Health while the Home Ministry also has a say on the matter.

He says the government is also working on a Parliamentary Services Act to further formalise roles such as the leader of the opposition as well as remuneration and salaries.

He says a Freedom of Information Act will be looked into next year and similar acts passed by the Selangor and Penang state assemblies will be studied.

As for an act to regulate political funding, Liew says Pakatan Harapan MPs have agreed to the formulation of such a law at the coalition’s last retreat. The select committee on the consideration of bills is expected to be tasked with drafting the law.

“We have to wait for the select committee to take this up. We have to look at what has been done in other jurisdictions,” he says.

On the devolution of powers under the Malaysia Agreement 1963, Liew says he submitted a report on the matter on Aug 31 to the “three wise men”, namely Mahathir, Sarawak Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Openg and Sabah Chief Minister Datuk Seri Mohd Shafie Apdal. The final standing committee meetings are scheduled to be completed this month.  

 

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