JUNE 14 — The impunity of police brutality in the United States has led to perhaps the biggest and most sustained public protest there so far in support of African-Americans and those who have been victimised.
In the US, which has dominated international markets for pop culture in the last few decades, this protest has spilled onto popular depictions of “good police” — which detractors feel do not accurately portray the reality on the ground.
Considering how prevalent police procedural shows are, this may yet impact the industry there.
Even critically-acclaimed police shows have not escaped criticism. This includes the seminal crime drama The Wire penned by former police reporter David Simon, even with its critical portrayal of the Baltimore police.
Comedy series Brooklyn Nine-Nine — which I enjoy, and has helped me destress after a long working night — also got into the crosshairs, despite one of its episode, the unforgettable “Moo Moo”, praised for portraying racial profiling and the exact situation that led to the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
The most absurd criticism, however, has been that against the children’s cartoon show Paw Patrol, which depicts talking dogs armed with technology taking on various rescue tasks, including the leader of the pack — a police German shepherd called Chase.
A New York Times op-ed explained the reasoning: that Paw Patrol seems harmless enough, even when the police there do plenty of harm.
The criticism against Chase is not without merit, although for me it has to be mostly about how Chase, as a police dog, ends up most of the time commandeering operations even when there is no need for him to be there, leading to his perceived essential status and screen-time.
(Source: I am a father of a four-year-old with a Netflix subscription, and sometimes cannot stop thinking that yes, sometimes a pup can indeed be too small.)
Reflecting on this pivotal time while also transposing the situation to Malaysia proves difficult, as the situation is less extreme here — although no less dire.
And it is mighty important to preface this discussion with the clarification that the police as an institution does play an important role in keeping the peace in Malaysian society, especially in recent times with its counter-terrorism efforts and enforcing the movement control order (MCO).
In a study by renowned pollster Ipsos Malaysia released in January this year, it was shown that seven in 10 Malaysians trust the Royal Malaysian Police. This makes the police the 7th most trusted institution in a list that was topped by teachers (89 per cent), doctors, and scientists.
Politicians ranked last with only 44 per cent trust, and journalists, sad to say, ranked fifth last with 66 per cent.
Just look at the popular depiction of the police in Malay pop culture.
For the majority of the aughts, the public’s reference of the police was drawn from Gerak Khas, the action drama series directed by Yusof Haslam shown in state broadcast channels TV1 and TV2, which spawned three films.
A number of Malaysian actors cut their teeth in the series depicting the titular special force, with characters played by AC Mizal and Abby Abadi becoming as unmissable as A. Galak’s handlebar moustache.
In 2015, the buddy cop action comedy film Polis Evo was released, leading to praise for Shaheizy Sam and Zizan Razak who play the protagonist duo. It raked in RM17.74 million at the box office, keeping it in the all-time top 10 highest grossing films here.
Three years later, its sequel was released, collecting even more at RM22.45 million.
In both titles, police officers are not only heroes, but exemplary paragons of virtue. Kids wanted to become them when they grew up. Heck, even I grew up wanting to be a police detective after watching educational mystery shows on TV Pendidikan (thankfully, my work now is not really too far off).
But again, to those who have been aware of the headlines involving police officers, this adulation for the force just does not sit well.
In April, a police inspector claimed trial for raping and molesting two Mongolian women in Petaling Jaya.
The month after, a sergeant was detained for allegedly molesting two of his female subordinates in Muar.
While enforcing the MCO, the police warned the public against documenting police officers while they are manning roadblocks, concerned about negative perceptions on social media.
Last month after arresting former radio personality Patrick Teoh and bringing him all the way from Petaling Jaya to Johor Baru, the Johor police admitted to trying to extend Teoh’s remand to compel him to give up his online passwords. Teoh will be charged today for allegedly insulting the Johor crown prince.
Up until now, the police have failed to locate and return the daughter of M. Indira Gandhi. The girl was kidnapped by her father, Indira’s ex-husband.
Last year, human rights commission Suhakam concluded that the controversial Special Branch was involved in at least two forced disappearance cases.
Mooted since 2004, the Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission is still not a reality, due to resistance and reluctance of the police themselves.
Little of these make its way into popular culture, although not for the lack of trying.
Who can forget the impact of 2018’s One Two Jaga directed by Nam Ron? Its honest portrayal of corruption and power abuse was simultaneously inspiring and depressing to watch.
And yet, writer and actor Bront Palarae was reported saying he took six to eight weeks trying to revise the script and getting the police to put their stamp on it. His first attempt was downright rejected.
The final result, although impactful, was nonetheless blunted by its ending which obviously was to appease the authorities.
The ongoing conversation worldwide over the powers of the police must also take place here. “Defunding the police” may not seem appropriate here though, considering how officers and staff themselves are still not paid reasonably.
With the country continuing its regressing trajectory towards a dearth of respect for human rights, limited freedom of expression and unabashed strong-arming, the question of “who watches the watchmen?” becomes all the more crucial.
*This is the personal opinion of the columnist.