CORRUPTION, abuse of power, ineffective and poor service – these were the descriptions of the police force. They did not come from the Opposition but from the Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Mohd Bakri Omar himself.
For most Malaysians, what the top police chief said is not even news anymore. Many motorists, at one time or another, have had to deal with corrupt constables who stopped them for flimsy traffic offences.
We have also coped with officers who display reluctance at taking down reports on crimes. We have shown our patience with nonchalant officers who tell crime victims that the force has zero chance of recovering their stolen items because "such crimes are a daily occurrence."
Malaysians cannot be blamed if they put on a cynical smile when they see the anti-corruption stickers on the patrol cars and badges of similar nature on police uniforms. All of us know that bribery is still rampant.
Just days ago, a 60-year-old woman alleged that she was stripped at a police station.
The impression of the public, with the ear-squat episode still fresh in their minds, is that the police had not learnt their lesson. Maybe it is unfair to have such an impression when these are mere allegations, but public perception is important.
Mohd Bakri, who was speaking at a seminar for 196 officers-in-charge of stations in Kuala Lumpur on Monday, did not hold back his punches. He said the problems faced by the force would not have arisen if the officers had carried out their duties.
"Then, the situation will be different and the public will not make a fuss or take any action against us," he said, adding that "integrity cannot be taught, it can only be nurtured; and you as station chiefs must carry out your task as supervisors to ensure your subordinates are honest and sincere, as you are the closest officer to them."
The bottom line is that the force must be prepared to change. Although Mohd Bakri has spoken to fewer than 200 officers, the message must go down to the force's entire 85,000 personnel. The days of using muscle and brawn are gone, and as Mohd Bakri put it bluntly – the officers must use their brains, so they would be more rational.
Malaysians expect a certain level of performance from government agencies and bodies, and the police force should not be an exception. The job of a policeman requires him or her to interact with the people; it's a frontline job with plenty of scrutiny.
We expect the force to lift their game and be in tune with the rapid changes in the country. Malaysians are more educated, better exposed and better travelled. More importantly, we know our rights.
We know that there are good police officers in the force; we know that they deserve better salaries and perks, and we know that they have kept our streets relatively safe.
But in the scheme of things, we must never allow our standards to fall; not comparing ourselves with Manila, Jakarta or Bangkok, but seeing where we stand against the police forces of Hong Kong, Singapore, Australia, Canada and Britain.
Malaysians have become more assertive over the years. Such New Activism, which is a common development in any economy with a fast expanding middle-class, will continue to have an impact in the coming years.
The new tools of communication, the Internet and the SMS, would be used widely by Malaysians to pass judgment on issues involving the police, even if the issues were ignored by some sections of the media. No one can run away from this reality anymore.
Mohd Bakri hit the nail on the head when he told his audience to "read the newspapers … you can see students with lots of As in their SPM and STPM. They will become part of the community that you will have to serve."
For the good of the police force, our men and women in uniform must be respected. We want to respect them and we want them to be respected because they have dedicated their lives to protect us.
We must remember that we can sleep soundly every night because of their effectiveness.
We realise that there are politicians and activists, with their own agendas, who look for every excuse to tarnish the police's credibility, but our leaders and police must sit up and listen when ordinary citizens talk about their unhappiness openly. These are voices that are similar to what Mohd Bakri has said.
The question is what happens next after the speeches have been delivered. Would the errant police officers continue in their ways in the absence of an acceptable mechanism and an anti-corruption agency that is not truly independent?
A clean and upright police force is a long-term process but for the change to begin, the police must be prepared to accept feedback – of the good, bad and ugly sort. They should not take criticism as personal attacks but in a constructive way.
For the time being, the police force must realise that until they earn their stripes, so to speak, from the people, they would be regarded as officers with no honour. They should be the Polis DiRaja Malaysia, not Polis Raja Di Malaysia.