Cash-strapped Malaysian police under pressure amid plans for oversight body

Malaysia's new police chief Abdul Hamid Bador has been making efforts to understand and boost the morale of his men. PHOTO: THE STAR/ ASIA NEWS NETWORK
Malaysia's new police chief Abdul Hamid Bador has been making efforts to understand and boost the morale of his men. PHOTO: THE STAR/ ASIA NEWS NETWORK

At one police station in Kuala Lumpur, low-ranking personnel have to buy stationery, reams of A4-sized papers and printer ink cartridges with their own money to be able to carry out administrative work.

At another station in Selangor, patrol cars are ageing Proton Wajas, no match for the high-powered luxury cars often used by suspects fleeing a scene.

These are a fraction of the daily privations faced by the majority of the 135,000 Royal Malaysia Police officers, who point out - as a new commission gears up to investigate complaints about the force - that they lack the most basic infrastructure and equipment to be able to do their jobs properly.

The call to form the Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC) - aimed at reducing corruption and custodial deaths of crime suspects - arose 14 years ago, and is now being pushed for as part of reform promises by the Pakatan Harapan government.

Although many police officers were initially against the idea, continuous efforts by Malaysia's new police chief Abdul Hamid Bador to understand and boost the morale of his men have borne fruit, with most front-liners now showing signs of receptiveness to the new oversight body.

But, to these lower-rank officers, basic issues - such as having the budget for printing equipment, newer police cars and better pay - are still at the forefront of their minds.

"With our current infrastructure and salary, it's hard to operate effectively. It's even harder to make ends meet, especially if we're stationed in a big city," said a 31-year-old lance corporal who declined to be named. He was among the dozen police officers The Sunday Times spoke to.

"Integrity aside, those who are desperate would surely be tempted to accept bribes because after deductions and purchasing things that should have been provided to us, there is barely enough to stay afloat. It might sound like an excuse but I've seen with my own eyes how some of my peers had to resort to such things because they just couldn't survive with RM1,000 (S$331) till the next pay cheque."

In Malaysia, officers with the rank of sergeant and below typically earn between RM1,014 and RM4,307 a month.

To live comfortably in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia's central bank estimates RM2,700 to be the necessary living wage for a single adult, RM4,500 for a couple without children, and RM6,500 for a couple with two children.

  • About the IPCMC

  • The Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC) was among 125 recommendations made by a Royal Commission of Inquiry (RCI) convened in 2005 after a public backlash over a number of custodial deaths and police brutality allegations.

    Ever since it was mooted, the idea of the IPCMC has met with opposition from police associations, former officers and politicians, who fear it would reduce the powers of the force by limiting its role in conducting investigations. But calls for the commission were renewed this year following a public inquiry into the disappearances of Malaysian activist Amri Che Mat and Pastor Raymond Koh in 2016 and 2017. The inquiry concluded both had been victims of so-called enforced disappearance allegedly carried out by the Special Branch, the police's intelligence unit, then under the leadership of Tan Sri Mohamad Fuzi Harun.

    An enforced disappearance refers to the arrest, detention or abduction of a person by agents of the state, after which the person's fate or whereabouts are concealed.

    Pastor Koh was suspected of converting Muslims to Christianity, while Mr Amri was suspected of spreading Shi'ite beliefs.

    If it is passed in October, the IPCMC will have powers that include "policing" the police and advising the government on police welfare.

    The commission will have a maximum of 10 members, all of whom must not have held any posts in the police or public service.

    It will also have appointed officers, seconded from government agencies, the public prosecutors' office and private law firms to investigate alleged police wrongdoing.

    Section 22 of the proposed law would allow the public to lodge complaints with the IPCMC of police misconduct.

    Investigations will then be read by a Complaints Committee, which can either refer the findings to the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission if corruption offences under the MACC Act are found; to other relevant authorities if criminal offences under any other law are discovered; or the IPCMC if findings show any misconduct in order to start disciplinary proceedings.

    The IPCMC will have the power to compel police officers to cooperate with questioning, or submit documents and statements for investigations. Those who do not comply face up to RM10,000 (S$3,338) in fines, two years' jail or both.

Apart from the low salaries, poor basic facilities and working environments, such as rundown stations and lock-up centres, are an ongoing complaint for most officers.

"Some of the CCTVs (closed-circuit television cameras) don't work any more. If the IPCMC is set up without having all the necessary equipment ready, it wouldn't be fair to us. There's no way we can readily provide evidence if we're implicated in a case," said a sergeant, who also declined to be named.

"I would know because I had a hard time proving my innocence when I was implicated in a custodial death case that happened in our lock-up. Aside from that, we need high-speed vehicles and body cameras."

In recent years, countries such as New Zealand, Britain and Denmark have set up independent police complaint authorities to handle criminal offences committed by police officers.

To protect front-line personnel, Singapore, the United States, Europe, Japan, South Korea and Hong Kong have also adopted the practice of body-worn cameras.

As Malaysia looks set to implement the IPCMC following the tabling of the Bill in Parliament on July 18, it also raises the question of whether the cash-strapped police force can be adequately equipped ahead of the implementation.

Datuk Seri Hamid said: "I understand and I'm aware of the existing problems, such as the lack of equipment, faced by my men. This is due to uneven distribution (of the budget) and constant change in the working environment."

Mr Hamid was referring to the common practice of transferring officers across departments and states, but told The Sunday Times that such issues can be "settled" through discussions with the Home Ministry, which oversees the police department.

In the force's defence, Mr Hamid pointed out that despite drawing low salaries, there are thousands of trustworthy policemen as well.

"I have always emphasised that security is an expensive business. While waiting for it (IPCMC) to be passed, the police can make improvements on its own," he said.

Since taking over the helm in May, Mr Hamid has been active in making impromptu visits to police stations to evaluate officers' working conditions. The 60-year-old has also fought for better welfare for lower-ranked personnel, while also weeding out the bad apples.

He said that problems within the force usually stem from the lack of integrity.

Mr Hamid added that if every officer can have integrity, "most of the internal issues can easily be settled. At the same time, we can tell the government that if you want us to do this, please provide us with the equipment as we can't do things without being properly equipped".

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 11, 2019, with the headline Cash-strapped Malaysian police under pressure amid plans for oversight body. Subscribe