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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Public space and privacy

 By R. Nadeswaran |TheSunDaily

AT the rate issues are expanding, one thing is certain. No Malaysian will go hungry any more. At the rate free meals have been dished out or planned to be dished out, there won't be a hungry soul at least in some areas in the Klang Valley. Last week, there were free burgers in Damansara. Yesterday, there was supposed be free thosai in Ampang and over the next few days, a few other instances of these antics were planned but subsequently aborted.

Deputy Inspector-General of Police Tan Sri Khalid Abu Bakar's unbelievable reaction to the protest by a group that set up stalls outside Datuk Ambiga Sreenevasan's home has opened the floodgates to some uncouth Malaysians planning uncanny frolics of their own.

Instead of offering a plausible understanding of the law, he was quoted as saying: "What offence? If you want to sit in front of her house without disrupting other people, there is no offence ... privacy? They didn't enter her house; they were in public space."

So, are we to assume that we can do whatever we want in public space which causes annoyance to fellow citizens? And does this also mean dozens of people can pitch tents outside someone's house? Can citizens now put up a table and place four chairs and play a game of bridge inside a roundabout? Going by Khalid's logic, they are in a public place; they are not disrupting other people and did not invade anyone's privacy.

Khalid's choice of words and understanding of the law has now created a situation where anyone can do anything in what he termed as public space. As the No. 2 in the police force, we should not be reading the law to him as we are certain that Khalid is familiar with the Penal Code and other legislation used to enforce law and order. Perhaps, it is timely to remind readers of such a law.

Section 268 of the Penal Code states: A person is guilty of a public nuisance, who does any act, or is guilty of an illegal omission, which causes any common injury, danger, or annoyance to the public, or to the people in general who dwell or occupy property in the vicinity, or which must necessarily cause injury, obstruction, danger, or annoyance to persons who may have occasion to use any public right.

Since when did police stop bothering people in public space? Four years ago, my friends and I who were outside a house in Petaling Jaya were accosted by four policemen on motorcycles. They wanted to know the reasons we were sitting on the culvert outside. When the occupant of the house identified himself and said we were his guests and had stepped out for a smoke, the policemen left.

Every citizen of this country is entitled to peace and safety where he or she resides. As such, he or she cannot be threatened or harassed with impunity by anyone. The "uncivilised" mode of protest which borders on absurdity and illegality has no place in our society. We have often talked about being a developed nation but this is not measured just by the highways, the buildings, the cars we drive or the money in our banks. More importantly, our ability to express ourselves in a manner befitting ourselves reflects the maturity of our society.

While we express our disgust at the deplorable conduct of the protesters which is totally unacceptable, we must also hold those responsible for enforcing the law for their lackadaisical attitude in combating unacceptable practices.

We have always perceived policemen as friends whose primary responsibilities are to enforce law and order and look after the interests of the citizen. In the many opportunities to interact with them on and off duty, we found them to be people who sometimes have to be cruel to be kind. We have enjoyed the friendship and support of many as we share common goals and concerns.

The events of the past have shown that such views have changed, judging by comments in the blogosphere. The police have often called for public co-operation in fighting crime. Now with this uncalled for remarks, how would the police expect such co-operation?

Let us not run away from the fact that most of our policemen are doing yeoman service. They are there directing traffic under the blazing sun and in the rain. We believe all Malaysians appreciate their services, but when their acts of omission and commission transcend common sense, the people are entitled to re-think their positions.

R. Nadeswaran remains a friend of the police and the occasional errors of judgment. He will continue to campaign for better salaries and working conditions for our men in blue. He is editor (special and investigative reporting) at theSun and can be reached at:

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