Leader of defunct Penang Voluntary Patrol Unit speaks up

Members of the Penang Voluntary Patrol Unit being escorted by the police during a Merdeka day march-past in 2014. (Facebook pic)

GEORGE TOWN: On Aug 31, 2014, a 250-member contingent from the Penang Voluntary Unit (PPS) was proudly marching past the governor and other Penang officials at the state-level Merdeka parade at the Esplanade grounds.

As the PPS members marched past the VIP dais, a group of policemen appeared and began marching along with them on the sides. They told them to carry on walking as they ushered them to the Beach Street police station some 200m away.

The PPS members were told that they would be arrested, but no reason was given.

But they had a hint, because a few days before, the inspector-general of police had warned all 9,002 PPS members to “surrender” to the police as they were part of an “illegal” group.

Members of the Penang Voluntary Patrol Unit being processed at the Beach Street police station on Aug 31, 2014. (Lim Guan Eng Facebook pic)

The then-PPS chief coordinator, Manickam Alagappan, along with 154 others, were transported in police lorries to the Patani Road police station to be detained.

Their trademark purple vests, berets and walkie-talkies were seized.

Speaking to FMT, Manickam said until today, no charges had been brought against those arrested although they were detained for a day to be probed under the Societies Act 1966.

After that, he said the members were told to check in with the police every month to “renew” their monthly police bail. This went on for three months. On the third month, an officer told him not to come anymore.

“We will never forget that Merdeka day. They herded us like sheep into the police station. We were all blur and kept asking ourselves, why are we being arrested?

“Why arrest us during the Merdeka day parade? At the time of arrest, PPS had been in operation for three years. Why didn’t you catch us three years earlier, while we were on our crime watch rounds? Or when we had workshops with the police? Would you arrest a murderer three years after he has committed a crime?

Penang Voluntary Patrol Unit chief coordinator Manickam Alagappan (in black shirt).

“Our conscience is clear, we did not do anything wrong. We were merely fighting crime,” Manickam, a retired police officer with 31 years of service, said.

He said PPS’ path to being declared illegal began from provocation by a purported political activist against two PPS members in Air Itam weeks before the swoop on the unit.

Manickam alleged that the PPS members were purposely provoked by the man. He said while all three men were charged with committing affray, the court gave them a discharge not amounting to an acquittal.

Later, he said, politically-linked parties started demanding that police investigate the legality of PPS.

Background of PPS

PPS was set up by the Penang state executive council in 2011 to reduce the crime rate through foot patrols in crime-prone areas. It was also meant to be the first responder to disasters.

Each state assembly constituency was to have at least 15 PPS members, with the state government allocating close to RM1 million a year in funding for all 40 constituencies.

A snapshot of General Order No 288/2014 made by former home minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi in the Federal Government Gazette, declaring the Penang Voluntary Patrol Unit illegal.

PPS was catapulted into the national spotlight following the uproar over the fight between two PPS members and the activist.

On Aug 29, 2014, then-inspector-general of police Khalid Abu Bakar tweeted that all 9,002 PPS members should surrender or risk being arrested.

Then-home minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi declared PPS illegal, after the Registrar of Societies (RoS) said it was an “unlawful society” on Nov 3, 2014, in the Federal Government Gazette.

After the arrests, Zahid was reported as saying that then-Penang chief minister Lim Guan Eng had “asked for it”, since the latter challenged the IGP to take action against PPS if it was indeed illegal.

Penang Voluntary Patrol Unit members being loaded into police vans, lorries and unmarked cars to be transported to the Patani Road police station to be placed under arrest.

The Penang government then said PPS was not a society but a body formed by the state executive council, hence no registration with the RoS was necessary.

In a four-year legal battle which ended only recently, the Federal Court ruled that the Penang government could not set up PPS under its auspices and that it ought to have been registered as an association under the Societies Act 1966.

Separately, the apex court also ruled that an order by the home minister in 2014 to declare PPS illegal on the grounds that it was prejudicial to public order was “unreasonable”.

‘Apex court ruling a vindication of sorts’

State executive councillor Phee Boon Poh viewed the ruling as a victory of sorts as the judges had found the home minister’s ruling unreasonable.

He said this showed that the minister had acted out of political expediency rather than following the law itself.

Phee said usually, when an association is deemed an unregistered outfit by the RoS, the registrar will give the group time to “legalise”.

“But the police and the home minister declared us illegal before the RoS did. I feel that was the wrong thing to do. With the court setting aside the minister’s order, it goes to prove what we thought all along, that this was a politically motivated move,” he said.

State exco member Phee Boon Poh with his wife at the Patani Road police station on Sep 1, 2014, after the Penang Voluntary Patrol Unit members were released from remand. (Facebook pic)

However, Phee said he accepted and respected the court’s verdict on the outfit’s legality.

He said PPS had been a highly respected unit by the Penang police at that time, and that they were “best friends” as the unit had been proven to cut down crime significantly.

Phee said when the 155 PPS members were arrested, the police were apologetic, saying they were merely carrying out orders from their superiors.

Phee was arrested as well, along with then-Tanjong MP Ng Wei Aik and then-Seri Delima assemblyman RSN Rayer.

“When we were arrested, we were treated well. We were given a buffet lunch and dinner. Police knew the truth.

“Now, you ask if I would sue the police. Why bother, I know their defence. They were victims of circumstances, just like us. They knew our contribution to combating crime.

“All this was done to politically shame us. We were victims of a government that showed no respect for human rights and the move to keep our streets safe,” he said.

Phee said while the revival of PPS is being worked on, it will make efforts to redeploy members under federally-mandated patrol schemes such as Rukun Tetangga and the Voluntary Patrol Scheme.

“The state executive council has not decided on the next move but will make a decision soon on how to move forward, through Rela, the Voluntary Patrol Scheme or reviving PPS altogether. Our options remain open.”