Policing the multicultural society

The police must evolve with a multicultural society – not determine its course of evolution, says Nicholas Chan.

Photograph: The Star

Photograph: The Star

The child custody tussle between M Indira Gandhi and her Hindu-turned-Muslim ex-husband, Mohd Ridzuan Abdullah (see pic above), and the subsequent refusal by the police to investigate the alleged abduction of the son from the couple by the father despite a court order highlights the importance of policing in a multicultural society like Malaysia.

As the lines are blurred between what is recognised as downright criminal (e.g. murder, rape and robbery) and religiously or culturally “criminal” (e.g. paying Ang Pow money in white packets or not fasting during Ramadhan), the police with their mandate to enforce all criminal laws in the country on all inhabitants of Malaysia hold the greatest say on where the boundaries of civil justice are drawn.

Their importance is more so than ever under the parallel court system (civil vs sharia) as permitted by the Constitution and amended into coequal status in 1988. What was intended as an arbiter of Muslim family laws (thus perceivably a judicial auxiliary, but not competitor to its civil counterpart) had in multiple cases of muddled jurisdiction (mostly pertaining to Muslim converts) proved its ability to overshadow the civil courts, with results often detrimental to the non-Muslim parties.

With talk of realising hudud punishment lingering in the political sphere, fear is growing that such a silhouette might grow even larger and further from its family law roots.

Nevertheless, there is still hope for grieving parties as matters of law could always be referred back to legal (court appeals) and parliamentary (law reforms) due process. But the legitimacy, jurisdiction and effects of law are only as good as the enforcement of it.

The police’s earlier refusal to enforce a court decision could be read by our multicultural society as a law, albeit one that does not have a statutory form – a silent law that affirms the position of the Islamist supremacists in this country, and whatever definitions or “illusions” one has towards Malaysia’s multiculturalism has to adjust themselves towards.

The inaction of the police towards an outlawed action, risked moving the police from their status as as a civil authority towards a moral authority. Policing in a multicultural state was effectively effectively transformed into policing THE multicultural state.

At the risk of sounding too semantic, there is actually a big distinction between the two. Policing in a multicultural state denotes that policing shall follow a code of conduct underlined by national laws and international standards. In our case, that means the Constitution that guarantees our fundamental liberties (to a great extent, I may add) and the various laws that govern police jurisdiction (pertaining to what constitutes an offence) and their procedural manners, like the Police Act 1967, The Criminal Procedural Code and the Penal Code.

As a member of the international community, the Royal Malaysian Police force is also monitored by human rights standards determined by the United Nations – which forms the bedrock for democratic policing.

The term “policing in a multicultural state” implies that policing is non-specific and the police doctrine would not flow in favour of changing demographics, societal norms and populist demands. The emphasis of non-specificity in policing is particularly important in a multicultural state because it is instrumental to the impartiality of the police (neither pandering to the regime nor societal prejudices). It signifies the determination against over- and under-policing, both always exercised at the expense of the minorities, be it in the classifications of ethnicity, gender, culture, religion or any other predispositions.

The police should not be or be seen to be vulnerable to changes in the political or social order, but instead should change their policing practices in the maintenance of their police doctrine in the face of such changes. For example, the police force should alter its make-up according to the changing demographics of the society to ensure the accommodation of diversity. As policing cultures will trickle down to social cultures and behaviours, the police must exercise maximum caution to ensure it only enforces the law to protect the population but not control it.

On the other hand, policing THE multicultural society is a paradox, an oxymoron in the making. A multicultural society is complex, dynamic, in constant flux, borderless, often divergent and even confrontational in its assertions from various quarters of society.

In contrast, police doctrines that are determined by laws, statues and procedures are often rigid, absolute and prone to enforce boundaries. A democratic police force is responsible for maintaining the fault lines between the law and the population, but not the fault lines within the population.

Policing THE multicultural society, however, is at the risk of doing so. It portrays a sense of specificity, that the “ordered” multicultural society we enjoy in Malaysia (whatever that means) is a result of policing. In this case, policing is not just integral in permitting the existence of a multicultural society, but also defines it.

The definition expands beyond the relations between the citizens and the State (the Social Contract, by definition), but also the relations between the citizens, implying there is a hierarchical, or even feudalistic order to begin with. Multiculturalism is stifled as an imbalance in power relations between groups of the society is enforced, regrettably by the police.

By enforcing boundaries between segments of society, multiculturalism became a State-owned and recognised property with its course and trends open to alterations by the State. As a result, the history and heritage, and the fluidity of socio-cultural exchanges that produces and is inherited by the multicultural society is effectively, due to the actions or inactions in policing, constrained by the discourse and intentions of the State.

Granted, these are not alien theories as the Social Contract of Malaysia was being read (and some would say written) in an ethnocratic basis instead of the relations between Men and Law. Some of our laws, like the Sedition Act and clauses of the Penal Code and newly amended Prevention of Crime Act were conceived in the interest of regime maintenance and subculture policing.

While it is obvious that multiculturalism will not thrive in either the absence or the intervention of policing (absence would mean anarchy while intervention would most probably result in moral and culture policing), the Malaysian police must constantly remind themselves to tread carefully out of the incessant discourses within the society, unless clear and defined elements of criminality surface. The police must evolve with the multicultural society, not determine its course of evolution.

Nicholas Chan

Nicholas Chan is a socio-political research analyst at Penang Institute. A forensic scientist by education, he believes there is a truth in everything and it all depends on whether we want to see it or not.

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