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Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Of bouquets and brickbats

The recent investigations and consequent arrests of persons who had stepped on, and in one instance flashed his naked backside at, images of the Prime Minister and his wife has been a cause for wonderment. Like many other Malaysians, I could not help but question the deploying of the already stretched resources of the police to that end when such resources could have deployed to more constructive use. After all, crime did not stop during the period the police personnel involved were chasing down the recalcitrant individuals.

I do not condone rude behaviour and, from that standpoint, question the need for those individuals to have done what they did. I do not think their actions could be characterised as being a part of some great expression, artistic or otherwise, of political dissent that warranted such behaviour.  

I do however recognise that their behaviour cannot be characterised as anything more than bad mannered. And for all of that, I fail to see how it is what they did amounted to a crime.  

Were rudeness a crime, then quite a few Members of Parliament over recent years would have been hauled off to police stations for their conduct in the House. So would have other highly placed officials for their actions elsewhere. One only has to do a keyword search on YouTube with the appropriate keywords to find indisputable evidence of the same. 

More recently, those army veterans who chose to do their special brand of calisthenics in front of Dato’ Ambiga Sreenevasan’s residence would have similarly been hunted down as would have a number of anti-opposition protestors throughout the country. I recall an image of some individuals urinating on a banner on which the images of opposition leaders were depicted; surely they would not have been exempted. 

The point is, and this bears repeating, it is not a crime to express negative feelings about someone, no matter how important an office that person may hold. Consider all those instances identified above, past and present, and one can discern that the same thread runs through them; all these displays of emotion, in one form or the other, were expressions of dissatisfaction.

And while it may be a crime to express thoughts about certain institutions of the State, the actions of those teenagers that took up so much column space and airtime in the media could not by any stretch of the imagination have been perceived as being an attack on any institution. It is not a crime to say one does not like or respect the Prime Minister in as much as it may, and this is a big may, be a crime to say that the institution of the Executive ought be abolished.

I would be surprised if the Prime Minister had himself not suggested to the police that they should perhaps focus on weightier issues than his feelings about being made the subject of some derision. After all, any person who steps into public office must accept the brickbats that come along with the bouquets. He or she must accept that in as much as there may be those who like them, there will always be people who do not. One only has to consider what it is that is happening in the United States of America as the Democrats and the Republicans size each other up for the upcoming presidential election to see how that reality plays out.

This then raises the question of why it is the police felt the need to jump to action as they did.  The answer that they had to in light of police reports having been lodged is, respectfully, disingenuous. Police reports are filed every day, some on matters of far less significance than others. While the police may investigate all such reports, it is commonly known that some matters, more usually those concerning serious crimes, are addressed as a greater priority than others. A report of a murder would overtake in significance a report concerning a petty theft, for instance. The police are also reserved a discretion to not investigate matters that are of no legal consequence. 

The answer may ultimately lie in how it is the Polis DiRaja Malaysia views its role in society. It is clear that the institution views itself as being charged with ensuring public order and public security. The difficulty may however lie in what it is the institution considers public disorder. It seems to me that over the last two decades or so the institution has come to perceive public disorder as being any events that may lead to a disruption of the order of things. 

This is a radically different notion from public disorder in the sense it is meant to be understood i.e. a less decentralised and narrower concept than the ordinary maintenance of law and order. Whether an event of public disorder has occurred has been approached by the Malaysian courts by asking the following question: does the event in issue lead to disturbance of the current of life of the community so as to amount to disturbance of the public order or does it effect merely an individual leaving the tranquility of the society undisturbed?  If it is the latter, then no event of pubic disorder can be said to have occurred.

Approached another way, this principle means that it is not the responsibility of the police to ensure that citizens do not express negative views about the personages forming the government of the day. Our right to do so, in what form we think appropriate (subject of course to laws guarding public order) is enshrined under Article 10 of the Federal Constitution. 

Were it otherwise, one could even argue that casting a vote against the political parties forming the government of the day is an act of sedition. And surely the police are not saying that?


(First published in "Rule of Law", The Edge, 17.09.2012)