Monday, August 5, 2013
If I were a secret policeman...
After a few of my friends got thrown into Kamunting during Dr M's infamous Operation Lalang in October 1987, I became rather paranoid about the Malaysian police, especially the Special Branch or Malaysian secret police. Every time I heard a crackle or mysterious whir while talking on the phone I immediately suspected my line was tapped.
It wasn't a healthy state of mind, to be living under a dark cloud of Orwellian fear.
My clearest memory of the Mahathir era is how afraid people were to talk politics in public places. Every time the name "Mahathir" was mentioned, everyone would quickly look around to see if there were suspicious SB types in the vicinity. That was Dr M's greatest contribution to the nation - he turned it into a police state akin to East Germany during the Cold War period.
Talk to Dr Munawar Anees about this, if you think I exaggerate.
Don't point with cretinous pride at the KLCC Twin Towers or the colossal architecture of Putrajaya. Any tyrant with unlimited access to the public purse can build any number of monuments to their own pharaonic megalomania.
I love elephants - but not when they're painted white! Do we really need an "official residence" for our top civil servant that costs the public RM9 million a year to rent and maintain? What an atrocious scam that is!
Anyway, I decided it was stupid to live in constant anxiety about the secret police. It's true the army and police ultimately exist to protect the privileged few from the wrath of the exploited multitudes whose toil and drudgery support the system; and so long as the masses remain asleep, the status quo remains unthreatened. However, the situation dramatically changes when a few leaders become enlightened and realize the unsustainability and inherent instability of any top-heavy feudalistic social hierarchy.
One day I stumbled upon a small shop in the Chow Kit area selling trophies, medals, military insignia, and police paraphernalia. I bought a PVC wallet emblazoned with the PDRM logo and began pretending I was an undercover cop. It was astounding how swiftly that altered my perception of the police force. Each time I spotted a cop on the street or driving around in a patrol car, I experienced the pleasant buzz of bumping into someone from your hometown when you're traveling abroad. Soon, I began to harbor friendly feelings towards the police, rather than hostility.
This simple game had far-reaching consequences. I began to relive my childhood fantasies of being an undercover cop (I had been deeply impressed as a 9-year old by the Hollywood glamorization of the FBI in a movie called The FBI Story, starring James Stewart).
As a teenager I relished a long-running series of vivid dreams in which I featured as a top-ranking Bond-style secret agent and death-defying commando, narrowly escaping the most harrowing situations and invariably getting to kiss the leading lady.
Never underestimate the power of the imagination. I experienced a major shift in my attitude towards security personnel. Now, each time I was on the phone and heard some static, I'd simply assume my colleagues in Bukit Aman were on the job, recording my wit and wisdom for posterity.
It's been some years since I played this little game, but I can snap into this mode of consciousness anytime I want. It allows me some insight into the mind of the secret policeman and an empathetic glimpse of the policeman's intrinsic humanity.
In any case, as I grew older I began to see through the façade of the power structure and realized that there was no government on earth worth killing and dying for - they were all fronts for an invisible network of demented and bedeviled plutocrats. If I were a true-life James Bond, I'd opt to join the rebel forces or drop out completely.
Around that period, I had an unexpected encounter with a Special Branch officer planted in the middle-class audience at a British Council screening of Terry Gilliam's cult classic, Brazil. As the lights went on after the show, my companion expressed a bit of confusion about the whole point of the movie. I told her it illustrated the stupidity of governments. As we filed out of the British Council (which was then located near Bukit Aman), a mild-mannered Indian gentleman tapped me on the shoulder and asked if he could have a quick word with me.
"Sure," I said, and told my companion to wait in the car for me. My suspicions were confirmed when the guy introduced himself as a Special Branch officer. Our conversation lasted no more than 15 minutes but what he essentially wanted to communicate to me was that I ought to be more careful what opinions I expressed in public.
"Walls have ears," the SB guy said, which elicited a sermon from me about the questionable morality of serving an immoral government. I could sense that this guy was actually a decent bloke, just a bit jaded from having been a copper almost his entire life. He was due for retirement in a couple of years. Finally, the guy confessed to me that he was utterly demoralized by the dirty politics he had seen in the line of duty. "Sometimes I wish somebody would just press the red button and blow up the whole world. It's already too rotten to save!"
"It's sad to see you've become such a nihilist," I said. "I can understand your viewpoint, but I believe change is the only constant, and that the status quo is really not quite as static as most people believe."
We parted with a friendly handshake but our little unscheduled chat left me with much food for thought. I could see myself in his predicament. A decent bloke stuck for years in an indecent job, carrying out stupid orders from superiors he had no real respect for. The only way he could deal with his disillusionment was to become a crusty old cynic.
Of course, he could have quit - like my friend Johnny Goh, a former SB officer who told me he was due for a promotion in 1998, but he felt so sickened by the manner in which the police were being used against Anwar Ibrahim, he decided to resign and start a stationery business. Not everyone has the wherewithal to begin anew after decades in a particular job.
And not too many have the balls to blow the whistle on the evils inherent in the system. Nevertheless, the few that do have the clarity of mind, the courage, and the strength of their conscience to do so may well be Malaysia's only hope at this point.
I know that for every crooked cop in the PDRM, there must be at least 500 who are still straight; who still believe that the police ought to be a force for the public good, not a bunch of uniformed thugs serving a handful of white-collar gangsters. Indeed, there would be absolutely no way out of our present mess if there weren't ultimately a lot more honest citizens than criminals in our country.
Call me a perpetual fool, if you will, but I remain convinced that there will always be an inner core of decency to be found in any institution - even one that has been corrupted and twisted by years of despotic misrule. Most times, the decent chaps choose to earn their wages and keep a low profile, convinced it's beyond their power to reform their workplace, safer to simply serve out their time and collect a comfortable pension.
So let me dedicate this blogpost to my friends and fellow warriors in the Special Branch, some of whom have been diligently monitoring what I say and occasionally leaving cryptic comments on my blog. I'm sure many of you love this country as much as I do. I'm sure many of you would like to see real change happen - especially regime change, even if you may be a bit uncertain as to what these changes mean in terms of special privileges for the Malays and whatnot.
May I suggest you pause for a moment and look at the situation from a purely HUMAN perspective - forget about bangsa dan agama for a minute. I bet most of you have enough intelligence to know that sort of talk is complete hogwash anyway. Your big bosses aren't particularly religious people - they only believe in the unholy power that money buys - the money stolen from all of us.
You guys (and gals) are merely pawns in their evil game. Same as anybody else. Think on that, please, and act on what your heart prompts you to do.
Remember how the Marcos regime finally ended in the Philippines? Ferdinand's downfall was triggered by a small group of women hired by the Election Commission to monitor the vote-counting process. Realizing someone had tampered with the computers, they decided to blow the whistle by fleeing the Election Commission headquarters and running across the street to seek sanctuary in a church - where they were greeted by the international media who were only too happy to broadcast abroad the news of gross electoral fraud. Within days, Marcos had to flee Manila with whatever he and his acquisitive wife Imelda could carry by hand.
[First published 15 April 2009 as part of an essay series titled "Where Malaysia Is Headed..."]