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MGG: Medieval Blood-Letting In Malaysia
By M.G.G. Pillai

4/10/2001 11:56 pm Thu

A man, long wanted by the police, is arrested. He is, in the view of the police, a very dangerous man indeed. One should assume that, with his reputation, the police would take more than the usual precautions so that he would not do a Houdini. He did just that when the policemen on duty relaxed their guard. The story is written up in the newspapers of how he escaped but the more worrying and horrifying aspect of this is that it was not only allowed to happen, but no action apparently is taken on the policemen involved. They should have been arrested, charged in court, sent to prison for their neglect. They escorted the prisoner, but arrived at the destination without him. But I have heard nothing of what the police intended to do so that this would be minimised, if not ever happen.

In the soporific world we Malaysians live in, the unconcealed anger is focussed on the prisoner's escape, not on his police guards' gross negligence. The damage to the system is ignored. It is akin to what we see on our television screens and newspapers these days after the World Trade Centre and Pentagon attacks on 11 September 2001: the horror and bombast concentrated on the Muslims who perpetrated it and not on what they achieved: bringing the most powerful nation to its metaphorical knees.

A letter in the New Straits Times today (4 October 2001, Letters, p11) suggests what would have been a brilliant advance in penal reform in the 13th century: put the fellow and his ilk in leg irons and chains in future. Mr P. Selvam of Petaling Jaya admits security was lax but gives the police credit for that since "it was not easy for the police to apprehend this criminal who with his gang members terrorised the public". But having caught him, allowed him to escape. The man was handcuffed.

That, in Mr Selvam's considered view, is not enough. "Perhaps, the police and prisons department should take measures adopted by a neighbouring country. Every prisoner has to be cuffed with leg irons and chains before being escorted to the courts. (The neighbouring country, in Malaysia's silly national euphemism, refers to Singapore, though here it is Thailand he talks of; he is not an official, so he is pardoned for not knowing it!) It is important to Mr Selvam, in what he wrote, that a prisoner, guilty or not, be deprived of his humanity and rights once the police decides he is a dangerous criminal. He is not yet tried in court, and we do not know if he is whom the police say he is and get the conviction it seeks.

This return to medieval practice sits happily in the mindset of the urban Malaysian. Let us chop the hands of the thief, shouts the confirmed Islamic zealots, not only in UMNO and PAS, and return to the practices Saudi Arabia's Wahabbi sect of Islam demands in a country where Shafie school of Islamic thought dominates. Let us stone to death adulterers. Let us jail a couple not married to each other found in "suspicious circumstances".

The non-Muslim and others, including Muslims, see this as beckoning a barbaric medieval past, and horrified at them. Yet he wastes not a thought to demand similar punishments for those who terrorise his neighbourhood, the only way, he thinks, he and his ilk could live in peace and comfort. "Perhaps," he concludes, "we can modify this practice by handcuffing and securing leg irons on serious offenders or dangerous criminals." I would suggest a variation: put those leg irons, handcuffs and chains on the policemen who allowed the fellow to escape before jailing him. The humiliation alone is enough to ensure that few policemen would dare allow a prisoner to escape after that.

The police are, in Malaysia, an object of fear. The citizen would rather stay out of his way. So crimes go unreported. Help not asked for. And they have their own bloodthirsty code: look at the number of Malaysians, mostly Indians as it turns out, murdered in cold blood by the police. The policeman who beat up the former deputy prime minister, Dato' Seri Anwar Ibrahim, was the Inspector-General of Police, no less. A case vends its way through the courts where the families of a pregnant woman and several others shot in cold blood by the police in the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur, seek redress. A few years ago, several Indians, all MIC members, were shot dead when the police stopped a van in Kelantan and murdered every person in it. We were told the van refused to stop at a police road block, but every victim was shot right through the temple. But statistics are rarely investigated. Though in this, the families would probably bring the matter to the courts.

M.G.G. Pillai