Preventive laws rob police of natural investigative abilities

I refer to the statement by former inspector-general of police Haniff Omar that abolishing the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act (Sosma) would complicate investigations related to national security and that the government should find a replacement to help prosecutors in “complex” cases.

Our ex-IGP comes from an era when the nation’s security was threatened on a daily basis. Yes, such preventive laws served the nation well in its fight against the communist insurgency. People were less informed and left all matters pertaining to security totally to the discretion of the authorities.

Although there were political abuses that went along with the implementation of those laws, these abuses were tolerated for the bigger benefit of safety and security to the community.

The picture is different today. People expect transparency and accountability. Haniff’s “yesteryears” approach is simply outdated. The rule of law must comply with the natural justice accorded by the criminal justice system. Modern day policing demands it.

Our preventive laws can be traced back to our colonial past. The British used it oppressively in all socio-political aspects. Political dissent was suppressed brutally using these laws and all those subjected to investigations then were deemed to be guilty until proven innocent. The authorities were to be completely trusted in their judgment as judge, jury and executioner. It was draconian, and modern day society being well informed as it is will not tolerate it anymore.

Serious criminal offenders who face offences which carry heavy sentences such as life imprisonment, the death penalty etc which are non-bailable are not really deterred by these laws. In fact, they gladly accept restriction or preventive detention in place of serving heavy sentences.

The police, earlier having had great success using those laws, became gradually overly dependent on them. They began to incline towards preventive laws. Also, it became the norm for early interference by the judiciary in applications to extend detention, and the standard of proof was raised by the courts.

The police, over time, were pushed into a narrower corner with lesser space and time to gather admissible evidence. Proceedings in summary trials became tedious and the workload of investigation officers became too heavy. The lure of using preventive laws loomed large as they became a quick and easy fix for the police.

But it opened the possibility for the executive to suppress political dissent using the police. This is another reason why we have to move forward and away from such laws.

This dependence on preventive laws eroded the natural instinctive skills of investigators doing real police work. The flair for criminal investigation became a rare commodity!

Over time it affected their natural abilities, including in the procurement of intelligence and an instinctive ability to detect crime.

It was the hallmark of police craft and acted as the bona fide way to prevent crime. Only police officers were trusted to have understood the criminal mind, how it worked and knew the right way of fighting crime. They mastered the use of all the investigative tools to gather admissible evidence. They were trusted fully by the community, given sufficient time to process intelligence and admissible evidence in preparation for offenders to be brought to court.

This is not the case anymore in contemporary society.

There has been a serious erosion of trust in police authority, partly because of the abuse of police powers, which have been documented over the years, and the current emphasis on human rights. Transparency of any police action is a prerequisite to winning the trust of society.

But there is a need to enhance the investigative powers of the police in certain serious offences. This has to be transparently reflected in giving the police every opportunity to gather evidence at the preliminary stage of investigations, especially for offences that threaten the nation’s security.

Preventive laws have outlived their purpose and the police must professionally embrace the criminal justice system. The future of modern policing and the relevance of The Royal Malaysia Police depend on it.

G.Selva is an FMT Reader.

The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.