Custodial Deaths, Police Brutality and Law Enforcement’s Roots in Colonialism

Amidst Diwali festivities, our Malaysian Indian communities are at a loss once again. The recent incident of abuse of power from the police was evidently shown in a viral video showcasing 29 Banting men of Indian descent being detained for crimes they did not commit. The men were arrested a total of three times by multiple police departments. The police only notified the arrest to the families on the 14th of October stating that they were detained under the Security Offences Special Measurements Act 2012 (SOSMA). 

After 28 days passed, no offences were charged but the men were rearrested under the excuse of the Societies Act of 1966. On the 11th of November, the police appealed to remand them for longer but their proposal was rejected by the magistrate. The police did not comply with the instructions and rearrested the men under the guise of Prevention of Crime Act 1959.  Since then, the families and our fellow Malaysians are in uproar over the injustice and the lack of respect the police have for the law. 

Bad Cop, Bad Cop

The Malaysian police force and allegations of police brutality are no strangers to one another. Back in July 2008, the death of Gunasegaran Rajasundram which happened under suspicious circumstances while under custody at the Sentul police department came as a shock to many Malaysians. The deceased’s family were told that his death was due to a drug overdose, however the coroner found that the cause of Gunasegaran’s death was due to police beatings on top of the drug overdose, and the High Court judge concurred with these findings. Eyewitnesses have confirmed with Gunasegaran’s family that he was in fact physically assaulted during detention, up to a point where he lost consciousness and was not able to regain it1.

In February 2017, at the North Klang police headquarters, S. Balamurugan died in custody. He had undergone multiple beatings while in police custody, as revealed in a second autopsy, which consequently triggered a heart failure. The Enforcement Agency Integrity Commission (EAIC) also found that police officers ignored standard operating procedures, and insisted criminal charges be brought against said police officers by the attorney-general. Later in October, police inspector Mohaneswaran Thiagarajah claimed trial under the charge of causing harm to Balamurugan, allegedly forcing him to admit to a confession for an armed robbery case2.

A more recent case would be the case of V. Mugilarasu, who was awaiting a court hearing that was scheduled in August 2020, which never took place since he died under custody in Sungai Buloh Prison a month before in July. The Selangor police alleged that he died of a heart attack, but Mugilarasu’s elder brother insists that the deceased did not exhibit any ill symptoms when they had a phone call just hours before his death. 

His death became even more suspicious when several face bruises, arm swellings, and bloodstains within the mouth were found on the body of the deceased by his brother. Under Section 329(5), The Criminal Procedure Code requires the police to report the death of a person to the coroner immediately. Additionally under Section 334, a coroner must conduct an inquest into the death of a person who had died in custody. The police, however, had not informed the Selangor state coroner of Mugilarasu’s death as of 3rd July at 8 pm, even though they had informed Mugilarasu’s brother nearly a full day earlier, on the 2nd of July at 11:15 pm3.

Even foreigners have witnessed custodial atrocities in Malaysia, with one Singaporean traveller Joshua Lee writing about the brutal assault of an Indian man in 2018, which he witnessed while in custody himself. He writes in his post, 

“Also first time I see officers beating up an innocent man. This Indian was just asking questions and I guessed the officers were annoyed by that? So 5 of them came in … and beat the living s*** out of him in front of all the people there.” 

He mentions that within his 26-hour detention, he was not allowed to use his phone and forced into a repulsive cell with over 100 other detainees4.

Besides the names of the victims mentioned above, Kugan Ananthan, Sugumar Chelladury, Karuna Nithi Palani Velu, and Dharmandran Narayansamy, all make up only a tiny fraction of custodial deaths that have occurred in Malaysian prisons and police departments within the last 15 years. Custodial deaths overwhelmingly affect the Indian community, which comes as a shock when we remember that Indians only comprise of 6.9% of the 29.4 million Malaysian citizens5. 1,600 deaths have been recorded in Malaysian prisons between the years 2010 and 2017, with almost 55% of those deaths recorded to be Indian victims6.

Policing Our Police

In the previous Badawi government, strong sentiments of police corruption could be found in civil consciousnesses and the Royal Commision for Police Reform–a temporary council– was established. On May 16th 2005, a report by the Royal Commission stated that a nationwide reformation of the police force was of importance due to the fact that the police force was the most corrupt government department. 

In the report, it recommended the repeal of Malaysia’s controversial Internal Security Act which allows the police to detain suspected criminals for an indefinite amount of time. It also recommended the revision of police salaries to avoid any form of corruption in terms of bribery and abuse of power. These findings and recommendations raised hopes for the people to feel safer in their own country but the reforms from these recommendations have not been seen nor evident with the recent events. 

There were a total of 125 recommendations found in the 600 page report, one of which was to establish The Independent Police Complaints of Misconduct Commission (IPCMC). SUHAKAM calls it “one of the most important reforms in new Malaysia” 7 and Amnesty International believes it has the power to “strengthen the legitimacy of the police agency in the country”8, but what is the notorious IPCMC? 

IPCMC is an independent police commission aimed at “investigating police misconduct, serving as a police oversight body, and advising policing policies”9. Initially established to ensure police accountability and effectiveness back in 2005, the IPCMC bill was close to being tabled in the newly-christened Pakatan Harapan government of 2018, but has yet to be enforced following back and forth in parliament. Members of civil society have also criticised parts of the bill and have called for it to be improved10

In August 2020, the Perikatan Nasional government introduced a “new-and-improved” version of the IPCMC– the Independent Police Conduct Commission (IPCC) which has raised eyebrows within civil society spaces as its contents have been severely diluted. Malaysian reform movement, Aliran, which aims to promote justice, freedom and solidarity, calls the IPCC “a commission that is doomed to failure” and calls for significant improvement of the bill11. The back and forth within parliamentary decisions is exhausting and has been going on for years. 

At a time where the inertia from the mistreatment of the 29 Banting men can still be felt, the presence of an independent police regulatory body is needed now more than ever. A truly independent police commission will ensure transparency within the police force– in hopes that cases of disciplinary misconduct, custodial deaths and police brutality are fairly dealt with. The independence of the police commission from any external bodies is also key in ensuring that there is no bias or ulterior motive to the decisions made by the regulatory body. 

SUARAM, Amnesty International and Lawyers for Liberty are some of the leading organisations demanding the regulation of the Malaysian police force and have long been in support of an independent police regulatory body. The IPCC/IPCMC is an example of a way that we regulate or reform the police, but how do we reform a system that some believe is inherently flawed?

Law Enforcement’s Roots in Colonialism

Looking beyond our man-made borders, American social scientists like Du Bois and Angela Davis have long fought for the abolition of the police institution. Disband, disempower, and disarm—a slogan loaded with critique of racial capitalism, what abolitionists believe to be one of the main mechanisms that channel power to police institutions all around the world. 

In the United States, the police force was first established as slave patrol—telling us that the crutch on which law enforcement of the country leans on is inherently problematic12. When the founding basis of an institution is fundamentally flawed and racist, the way it is sustained and maintained will highly likely reflect the values it was founded upon. This is apparent in the constant abuse of power by law enforcement in the United States which disproportionately affects Black Americans and other racial minorities. 

Knowing the dark past of law enforcement in the United States, let’s move back to our own shores. Does our police force have roots in colonialism? The answer is not as clear cut as it is with American history, but it does point us in that direction. During the Melaka Sultanate, policing entities did not exist. The closest entities that resemble what we know as modern police would be the representatives of the Sultan, but they functioned more as kampung leaders. 

It was only after the assimilation of Malacca into the British Empire in 1795, that a modern police organisation (as we know it now) in Malaysia was formed13. Most of the members in the police force were British and the police institution functioned as a medium of civil surveillance. Historical archives of how the police functioned in history are inaccessible which means we can’t assume the lengths that law enforcement were linked with colonialism but the little knowledge we have, tells us that perhaps this is a conversation that we must start having.

The Transformative Justice Framework

So, who “reprimands criminals” and “protects the people” if the police are gone? Enter the transformative justice framework (TJ). What TJ is, is all in its name. TJ is a political framework that approaches violence without creating more violence and engages in harm reduction to lessen violence. TransformHarm.org14, the leading resource and action centre for TJ, describes it as: 

“A way of “making things right,” or creating justice together. Transformative justice responses and interventions 1) do not rely on the state (e.g. police, prisons, the criminal legal system, foster care system (though some TJ responses do rely on or incorporate social services like counseling);  2) do not reinforce or perpetuate violence such as oppressive norms or vigilantism; and most importantly, 3) actively cultivate the things we know prevent violence such as healing, accountability, resilience, and safety for all involved.

For the proponents of TJ, it is an ideal approach to violence because it acknowledges the ways in which state responses to violence can traumatise those who are exposed to them– especially “oppressed communities who are already targeted by the state”. The communities referenced here would be communities that are institutionally discriminated against, or communities that fear deportation if the police are called on/around them.15

An approach such as TJ seems leap years away from the Malaysian reality, but the more we read and educate ourselves, perhaps it will be something we can achieve organically. Fully establishing an effective and independent police regulatory body has the potential of being the first step to progress in changing our approach to responding to violence. Going against systemic discrimination will always be easier said than done. Controversial ideas such as defunding the entire police force seems far-fetched for a country where the police still hold so much authoritative power over the people. So where do we start?

Besides actively spreading these news stories and issues to family, friends, and followers, the bigger step would be to collectively write to our MP’s and demand their support for the IPCC/IPCMC Bill. You may visit www.parlimen.gov.my to find out who your MP’s are. On the website, click on ‘Dewan Rakyat’, and then on ‘Ahli Dewan’. Key in your state to find out who your MP is, and you will find all their contact details. Write about why you think that an independent police regulatory body should be established immediately, write about how delaying the establishment of this regulatory body further enables abusive prison systems, and include your own experiences with police brutality and systematic abuse (if any). All of our individual voices collectively build up toward a push for change. 

As of the time of writing, there are no petitions or donation pages that directly support the families affected by custodial deaths, but this page will be updated in case our team finds any.

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