Hornbill Unleashed

May 1, 2009

Crime, Punishment and Torture

By Pak Bui


My car window was smashed by a man on a motorcycle, outside a coffee shop at dusk, one evening. A passerby gave chase on his motorcycle and saw the thief’s licence plate, but the thief escaped. I went to the central police station to make a report. The policewoman on duty wrote the thief’s licence plate number down. Then she asked “Jadi, mengapa mahu buat laporan ni?” I explained patiently that I wanted to prevent future crimes.

I was referred to another police station. The detectives on duty there were nothing like the intelligent, glamorous types we see on television. An elderly man’s bag had been stolen while he was practising tai chi. One detective joked the old man should have used some other martial art to stop the thief. My tour of the stations, in my car with newly improved ventilation, took three hours. The report came to nothing: the licence plate was a fake.

Violent crimes increasing nationwide

Violent crime rates, of far more concern than a broken car window, are increasing. Even in Sarawak, traditionally a tranquil place, most people know someone whose bag has been snatched, or whose house has been broken into, or who has been robbed.

Crime rates have long been on the rise, too, in Peninsular Malaysia. Last month, in Cheras, Selangor, a young woman was abducted at noon in front of a bank, and bundled into a Honda CR-V, while her husband sat waiting in a car. The woman was released five hours later. No ransom was mentioned in the Star newspaper report. District police chief, Assistant Commissioner Ahmad Amir Mohd Hashim, was quoted as saying “We do not have much information yet but we will make some arrests soon.” Perhaps a lack of information is no obstacle to making arrests in Cheras: the police might simply round up the usual suspects.

Crime statistics are malleable

The Sarawak Commissioner of Police, Datuk Mohmad Salleh, was quoted by Bernama on March 13 this year, as saying that he expects crime rates to increase, with the current economic meltdown. “We have to bring the crime rate down to less than 5% for the whole of this year,” he said, in order to meet the Police’s Key Performance Index. He pointed out that the crime rate is 2% lower than the corresponding period last year.

But how are statistics and Key Performance Indexes measured? If the police constable accepting a report is dismissive, how many other crimes are likely to be reported? Statistics can be massaged, so that our Prime Minister Najib Razak felt able to assure Malaysians on December 1 last year that the police say our crime rates are lower than those in Japan.

How can we reform the Police?

The Royal Police Commission set out 125 recommendations in its 2005 report . The most urgent was to “make crime reduction priority number one”. The other two must-do reforms were to “eradicate corruption” and “comply with prescribed laws and human rights”. These recommendations point to an alarming loss of contact with reality, in the ranks of our Police.

squat-nude-womanOther key reforms proposed included an Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission, better pay and housing for police, better lock-ups (anyone who has ever seen a cramped police lock-up, as I have, would surely agree), better ethnic and gender representation in the force and a more enlightened approach to domestic and sexual violence. Little progress has been made.

Custodial deaths and torture

adi-anwar-mansorThe Royal Police Commission also called for fast, transparent investigations into every single case of “custodial death”. The Commission urged the government to reform or repeal laws allowing arbitrary search and seizure, and remand without trial. These recommendations have been ignored, as we can see from the recent death of Kugan Ananthan, 22, and the beating of Adi Anwar Mansor, 23, brutalized until he lay unconscious in an ICU in Klang. “He was kicked on his back, hit on the back of his head and hit with a rubber hose until he could not take the pain,” said Jiknah Harun, 49, the ashen-faced mother of Adi Anwar.

The Health Ministry inquiry into Kugan’s death mentioned injuries to Kugan’s back, inflicted by a blunt but flexible object, such as a folded rubber hose .

In short, both Kugan and Adi Anwar were whipped.

Torture is traditionally performed to extract information or concessions. Why was torture used on these young men? The Police are under tremendous pressure to solve crimes and ensure convictions. The quickest way to achieve these goals, and produce positive statistics, is to extract confessions. Many letters written to newspapers argue that Kugan was a “criminal”, and that violence applied to criminals protects society at large. Kugan had not even been charged in court and had never been found guilty of any crime. And even if he had been convicted, would torture and death have been a just punishment?

Organs of sanctioned violence

Max Weber pointed out that the State only exists when it can uphold a claim on the monopoly of the legitimate use of violence. We read, again and again, of civilians shot and killed by police without the benefit of trial, with no public inquiry into whether the police were acting in self-defence – for example, the recent deaths of R Dilip Kumar and five other Indian men from poor estate backgrounds in Kulim, Kedah. Were these deaths, Kugan’s death and Adi Anwar’s horrific beating, all examples of “legitimate” violence?

Adi Anwar’s mother made a police report on the beating suffered by her son. She was represented by an Indian lawyer, and local PKR and PAS Youth leaders. The PKR Youth vice-chief Khairul Anuar Zainudin said, “We call for the Selangor Police Chief to resign. This is the second case of severe police abuse in the span of a few months in Selangor. This does not instill confidence in the police force. We hope this is the last time this happens”.

The PKR Youth leader went on to say Adi Anwar’s parents were “under intense pressure” from all that was happening. Adi Anwar’s parents are from a poor background and are not highly educated. Yet they stepped forward courageously to claim justice for their son. Perhaps a change of State government in Selangor has removed certain obstacles to such appeals for justice as theirs. Otherwise, punishment – not justice – is meted out to those who can least defend themselves.

Other state organs have been equally vocal in defending the Home Ministry from accusations that torture caused Kugan’s death . The Health Ministry inquiry, reviewing autopsy findings by its Serdang Hospital Pathologist Dr Abdul Karim Tajuddin, concluded that Kugan died of fluid in the lungs (“pulmonary oedema”), caused by inflammation of the heart muscle (“myocarditis”). The inquiry asserted that the blunt force injuries to Kugan’s body “were insufficient to cause death directly”, as there were no broken bones or ruptured internal organs.

However, the Health Ministry Director-General was quoted by Bernama as admitting that the blunt force trauma could have led to acute renal failure, “aggravating” the acute myocarditis, resulting in acute pulmonary oedema.

University Malaya Medical Centre Pathologist, Dr Prashant N Samberker, employed by Kugan’s family, made an independent autopsy report. He concluded death resulted from acute renal (kidney) failure. The kidney failure was caused by rhabdomyolysis, Dr Prashant reported, due to blunt trauma to the muscles. Rhabdomyolysis, or muscle breakdown, is a well-recognised result of trauma to the muscles, especially with prolonged or repeated injuries. Kugan was detained and interrogated for five days before he died. Rhabdomyolysis releases poisons from injured muscles into the blood, and causes kidney failure. Kidney failure, in turn, can cause pulmonary oedema. If the kidneys shut down, fluid cannot be removed from the body, and can accumulate in the lungs.

To be precise, and to clarify some of the jargon, the torture may not have caused the death directly, but it is standard textbook knowledge that the beatings may have caused death indirectly. The chain of events Dr Prashant listed out is common exam fodder for medical students.

The picture was clouded by copious medical jargon. Why did the rest of the medical profession not speak out for Kugan’s family? The Bar Council in Kuala Lumpur was at the forefront of protests over Kugan’s death, but the Malaysian Medical Association remained quiet and docile.

Crime and Justice

Poor people with limited education, like Adi Anwar’s parents and Kugan’s family, have stood up to fight for justice for their children.

What are we to do ourselves?

Will educated Sarawakians stand up and fight, for a better police force to protect our children? Can we improve political leadership so that we have a Police Service for our community, and not a Police Force of state-sanctioned violence?

Do our professions have the ethical backbone to establish better social institutions in Sarawak? Will bodies such as the Advocates’ Association of Sarawak and the Malaysian Medical Association ever speak out to protect the human rights of detainees, as the Bar Council has done?

Do we Malaysians have the collective courage to reduce income disparity in our lop-sided society, so that crime does not continue to flourish among the poor? Do we have the will to compel our politicians to carry out the Royal Police Commission’s recommendations and ratify the United Nations (UN) Convention Against Torture? Malaysia has never signed this treaty, unlike 123 out of 192 UN members.

Until these questions are answered, we cannot blame the police alone for the state of crime and punishment in our society. And Kugan’s death, and his family’s suffering, will be forgotten.

Will educated Sarawakians fight for a better police force for our children’s future? Can we improve political leadership so that we have a Police Service for our community, and not a Force of state-sanctioned violence?

Do our professions have the ethics to establish better social institutions in Sarawak? Will bodies such as the Advocates’ Association of Sarawak and the Malaysian Medical Association ever stand up to protect the human rights of detainees, as the Bar Council has done?

Do we have the courage to reduce income disparity in our lop-sided society, so that crime does not continue to flourish among the poor?

Until these questions are answered, we cannot blame the police alone for the crimes in our society.



  1. You trust that PDRM does have an effective policing strategy is synonymous to BN-lead government does not commit corruption!

    Comment by Tom Long — May 5, 2009 @ 3:11 PM | Reply

  2. Life evolves in a cycle. If we are free from corruption, the poor would get a better chance of earning more to pay for their daily necessities, thereby reducing crime. Who would want to steal if they had money to spend?

    The three segments of the public:
    1) The rich and ‘connected/related’ get richer by the day.
    2) The middle class like most of us are too scared/selfish to stand up and fight.
    3) The poor gets poorer (income remains the same while price for daily necessities increases by the day) and will turn to thieving/robbing to fill their stomach.

    The rich and ‘connected/related’ would not be affected with their high fences, expensive security and whatnot. Better still, with all the money they have, they can just easily migrate elsewhere. Whereas the middle class like us would most likely be affected by the daily reported stealings/robbings. To ensure ourselves and our children to be able to live in peace, it’s time we stand up and speak out against corruption (public enemy number one).

    Comment by Frankie — May 4, 2009 @ 11:23 PM | Reply

  3. Firstly, sorry to hear of the unfortunate incident.

    Your broken window pic – reminds me of the “Broken Windows” anti-crime policy used by former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, often cited as having reduced crime in the city and ‘cleaned’ it as if by waving a magic wand.

    At gatherings of the world’s top cops, this theory is often a presentation topic. The Los Angeles Police Chief William J. Bratton built his career on the “broken windows” theory. As New York’s police chief in the mid-1990s, he implemented a quality-of-life initiative to much acclaim, and he campaigned for the top job in L.A. on a “broken windows” platform. Boston Mayor Thomas Menino cracked down on such minor misdemeanor offenses as loud house parties, public drinking and improperly disposed trash, believing that these kinds of community-disorder issues are the precursors to the violent crimes that may follow.

    According to the “Broken Windows” theory, every instance of disorder, however small – such as a window broken by vandals – should be dealt with firmly. This sends a message of law enforcement and leads to a reduction in more serious crime, the theory goes. The implementation of this involved the aggressive pursuit of those who committed ‘minor’ infractions, such as painting graffiti, panhandling and jaywalking.

    The influential “Broken Windows” theory that was published in a 1982 Atlantic article by James Q. Wilson, a political scientist then at Harvard, and George L. Kelling, a criminologist. The theory suggests that a disorderly environment sends a message that no one is in charge, thus increasing fear, weakening community controls, and inviting criminal behavior. It further maintains that stopping minor offenses and restoring greater order can prevent serious crime.

    In 2005, Lowell, USA, was being turned into a real life crime-fighting laboratory to test the theory.

    Researchers from Harvard and Suffolk University meticulously recording criminal incidents in each of the hot spots, working with police, identified 34 crime hot spots. In half of them, authorities set to work – clearing trash from the sidewalks, fixing street lights, and sending loiterers scurrying. Abandoned buildings were secured, businesses forced to meet code, and more arrests made for misdemeanors. Mental health services and homeless aid referrals expanded. In the remaining hot spots, normal policing and services continued.

    The results were striking: A 20 percent plunge in calls to police from the parts of town that received extra attention. It is seen as strong scientific evidence that the “broken windows” theory really works – that disorderly conditions breed bad behavior, and that fixing them can help prevent crime.

    The Lowell experiment offers guidance on what seems to work best. Cleaning up the physical environment was very effective; misdemeanor arrests less so, and boosting social services had no apparent impact.

    This seems to be a solid basis for a policing strategy that preemptively addresses the conditions that promote crime. In traditional policing, cops go from call to call, chasing their own tail.

    I trust that PDRM does have an effective policing strategy. Any lessons we can learn from Rakan Cop?

    Comment by Borneonization — May 2, 2009 @ 2:26 AM | Reply

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