A proposal by Malaysia’s new government for an independent body to probe complaints of police misconduct is toothless and lacks enforcement power, human rights groups say.
Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s government last week submitted a bill in parliament that would establish an Independent Police Conduct Commission, and withdrew similar legislation advanced by the previous government in 2019.
The move has drawn fire from rights advocates at home and abroad, including Human Rights Watch, which described the new bill as a “major step backward from existing law.”
The proposed commission “would have no powers to punish rights-abusing police,” the New York-based organization said in a statement, calling on Muhyiddin’s government to withdraw and significantly revise its bill “to ensure genuine accountability of police.”
Human Rights Watch described the previous bill introduced in July 2019 as “flawed” but said it would have given the proposed commission more power to discipline police misconduct.
The Human Rights Commission of Malaysia (Suhakam) also criticized the new bill. Suhakam, a parliament-backed commission, said it was “especially concerned with the lack of independence and the weakened functions” of the proposed police conduct commission.
The law introduced by Muhyiddin’s government, which came to power unelected in March, did not capture the spirit of a Royal Commission of Inquiry, Suhakam added.
In 2005, the royal commission recommended that an independent body be set up to investigate allegations of police misconduct, in the wake of public complaints about alleged police brutality, bad behavior by cops, and the deaths of people in police custody.
In 2009, acting on that recommendation, the government established the Enforcement Agency Integrity Commission.
Although that commission is empowered to investigate complaints of misconduct against police officers, it does not have the power to prosecute wrong doers and can only recommend disciplinary action against them.
The government of former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad introduced its police oversight bill in July 2019, amid allegations that law enforcement was involved in the disappearances of Christian clergyman Raymond Koh in February 2017 and Shia Muslim activist Amri Che Mat in November 2016. In April 2019, investigations by Suhakam into the disappearances of both men concluded that “state agents” were probably behind their abductions.
Malaysia’s police chief declined to comment on the latest version of the proposed law, which would directly affect the 130,000-strong federal force.
“We will wait for further developments,” Police Inspector-General Abdul Hamid Bador told BenarNews on Tuesday, without elaborating.
Other officials in the current government did not respond to BenarNews’ requests for comments about the controversial bill.
An association representing retired police officers voiced their strong objections to the 2019 version of the bill, saying the police force did not need an “outside body” to monitor the conduct of the men and women in blue.
The new bill allows police to refuse to answer questions or disclose sensitive documents. The commission would also have to notify police before making a visit to lock-ups or detention centers, according to a copy of the bill seen by BenarNews.
“With the inclusion of this sections in the IPCC Bill, the Commission will be worse than the existing mechanisms,” said Suaram, a Malaysian human rights group. “[P]olice officers can refuse to answer [questions] based on a subjective and arbitrary excuse.”
The commission would also lack power to ensure that its recommendations are enforced or implemented, the group said.
Cynthia Gabriel, director of the Center to Combat Corruption and Cronyism (the C4 Center), a Malaysian NGO, said that new bill’s introduction suggested that integrity, fighting off impunity and tackling corruption in the police force was not part of the government’s agenda.
“Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin’s pledge to fight corruption could end up as merely paying lip service without meaningful and structural systemic change to our institutions and law enforcement agencies,” she told BenarNews.
Nisha David in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.