A week ago I went to my friend's house in PJ Old Town for an early Sunday breakfast. At about 8:30pm, I was walking back to the main road to get a taxi when I saw four police officers standing on the street corner. I smiled at them and tried to keep walking but they stopped me, asking to see my documents.
When I asked if I'd done anything wrong, they said no, but they still wanted to see my documents, preferably a passport. When I said I didn't have mine with me, they asked to search my purse and I said no. I asked again why I was being stopped because it was my understanding that police could only request documentation when arresting someone.
They told me I should have my documents with me and that they could stop any foreigners they wanted. Then they started rambling on about East European prostitutes. One of them pulled out a notebook and showed me a handwritten list of foreigners that they are looking for. No photographs, only names and passport numbers.
I told them I don't carry my only form of identification, my passport, because of the high number of snatch thefts that occur. It's already happened to me and to almost every woman I know.
I called my friend who is a lawyer and only when she arrived did I reveal I had a photocopy of my passport in my bag. My name was then written in the officer's notebook. I asked if that meant I was now on their list of criminal foreigners and he got angry, shouting that the list was for his own records.
As I left, they got on their motorbikes and rode away.
Why did I wait so long to reveal that I had a photocopy of my passport? Because from the first moment I felt like I was being shaken down, rightly or wrongly, and I suspected that if I'd shown it without my lawyer's presence they would have told me it was unacceptable not to have the original.
And frankly, I wanted to give them a hard time. I have witnessed policemen stopping women who look Filipino or Indonesian on the street. These women are doing nothing but walking, just as I was.
I have seen the women pulling out documents, presumably legal and still be kept waiting for up to 20 minutes. If there is a problem with illegal workers in this country, surely there is a more efficient way of handling it than making random checks.
I had a lawyer and a copy of a passport from a slightly more favoured nation. And I'm willing to bet that if I'd been walking in Bangsar or Mount Kiara this would not have happened. Women from the Philippines or Indonesia, here just as legally as me, are not so lucky.
My run-in with the law became a topic of conversation that week, and I was very surprised to find that many of my expatriate friends have also had negative experiences. For example:
As he does in his own country, my Japanese friend works late almost every evening, sometimes driving back as late as 1 or 2am. He told me he is frequently pulled over to be asked whether he's been drinking, even though he hasn't and has broken no traffic laws and is not driving erratically.
A pretty, single woman working here was being stalked by a man who lived nearby. She lodged a police report and the police warned the man to leave her alone. Shortly afterwards, she started getting phone calls from the police themselves, asking her out for tea.
A foreign student, here to learn English, was stopped by another group of policemen again for no reason other than to check on her identification. When she produced her student card, they said it was not 'official' enough and even though they were a block away from her school (and could have just as easily called) they insisted that she take them back to her condominium and show them her passport.
Finally she did. Once in her condo, they lost interest in seeing her passport, but wandered around admiring her furniture and the view from her balcony. They even invited her for lunch.
I found the last case especially chilling because of the recent number of police impersonators who have been responsible for gang-raping women. My friend was lucky, but even so, her student visa depends on class attendance. A couple more incidences like that could cost her the right to remain in the country.
My local friends have even more stories.
I grew up in a country that was destroyed by corruption. I love that country dearly as I have grown to love Malaysia. Malaysia has not reached that level yet, and I want to believe that most police officers are honest and take their job of protecting the people here seriously.
Many steps have been taken to stop corruption and I hope many more will be taken. Can I humbly suggest that the government run a campaign informing citizens, residents and visitors of their rights?
For example, do police have the power to stop people on the streets for no reason and demand documentation? Lawyers say no, police say yes and most people probably just obey the men in uniform.
When we are not informed of our rights, or if we are conditioned to blindly obey anyone in a blue uniform, it is easier for criminals to impersonate police officers as in the recent tragic cases of women who unquestioningly follow the 'police' somewhere, they will be robbed and raped. If police are only allowed to stop people who have committed an offence, there would be less chances of these incidences.
I worry about what happened to me on Sunday, especially now that I know it is so widespread I could not mention it without everyone at the table saying, "Oh, yeah, something like that happened to me too."
And I worry because in the group of four police officers, there was one man of about 40 doing all the talking. The other three were young and even looked embarrassed when I questioned their right to stop me. I had the sinking feeling that I was seeing the next generation of harassing officials in the making.
Again, I want to believe that most police officers are good and that if the police force can do away with the bad apples, it can be seen universally as a force to be trusted, respected and depended upon.