Section 20 of the Criminal Procedure Code (CPC) provides that "When a person has been arrested and has to be placed in custody, the police may search the body of the person". Rule 7 of Lock Up Rule 1953 also says, "Every prisoner shall be searched on admission". However according to section 19 of the CPC, "Whenever it is necessary to cause a woman to be searched, the search shall be made by another woman with strict regard to decency."
The problem the police face in the nude-ear-squat episode is whether this element of "strict regard to decency" has been adhered.
It cannot be said to have been adhered when the unfortunate girl had been video filmed. The incidence took place in a secure area where only police personnel had access.
Questions have also been raised on whether the exercise of police discretion to body search is, in each instance, arbitrary or based on whimsical inclination of the officer in attendance.
Whilst body search on those apprehended on suspicions of possession of drugs bears an obvious connection, should this procedure be arbitrarily foisted upon those detained for failing to produce the requisite identification documents?
Compounding the problem is that it is very questionable whether this ketuk ketampi (squats) can automatically dislodge objects from bodily orifices of persons suspected of hiding drugs. People will also ask why hold the ears, as if anything is suspected to be hidden in the ear canal?
The public perception then is that this practice of stripping a person naked to do ear squat is intended to basically humiliate rather than trying to search for contraband items hidden in bodily cavities.
However, although this 'standard operational procedure' is highly questionable, was the motive to body search this particular girl in the video clip also wrong?
The facts are to date not yet known. She might well be profiled as a freelance sex worker mixing in crowds that took drugs for which a search for drugs by this questionable procedure might be ordinary for the police - and in relation to the girl, an order to disrobe (even when peeped upon) was executed with nonchalance, without a wince.
She might not even be a foreigner from China, as Utusan Malaysia seemed to suggest: see Lim Kit Siang's Woman in naked ear-squat video Chinese national or local Malay? in his blog.
Although the woman in the clip appears fair skinned, this cannot by itself be conclusive that she is a Chinese, much less a Chinese national.
The fact is that there are so many complaints of late of police personnel involved in corruption or abuse of powers, some cases of which apparently involving vulnerable foreigners profiled as overstaying, that in this specific instance, everyone, including members of Parliament, jumped the gun and concluded this was a classic case of a Chinese national profiled.
As an institution, the public relations war has been lost for the police. With so many complaints from so many quarters of abuse of power, whether past or present, and whether proven, anecdotal or otherwise, the public and media already judge and pass sentence on the police even before the facts are known for this specific case.
Here the police have ironically been profiled by the public to have profiled foreigners including Chinese nationals. Even if this perception may be true for some police personnel on the ground, how general is this the case is presently unknown.
What if the girl in the video clip was actually a local?
Well, it is true that if such ketuk ketampi is wrong, it will be wrong for anyone, whether locals or foreigners but it still creates problems and embarrassment as it raises the question of why, before all facts are known, we should so readily send a minister to apologise to the Chinese government in relation to mistreatment of one of our own Malaysian girls? It will be recollected that another minister already came to grieve for saying that if foreigners did not like the police treatment they could all go home!
This whole episode of pre-judging a video clip by its "colour" before the facts are known only shows how much the public readily believe that the police abuse the power including profiling certain groups even if in a specific case of one caught on video clip, they actually might not have done so or at least have their reasons for doing for what they had done.
Yet the readiness of the public to adversely pre-judge against the police institution is neither without explanation nor justification.
Just about every one who have had a brush with the law would recall from personal experience some bribe given or taken for some offences which are not necessarily minor traffic offences, and for others they have been treated haughtily.
The restoration of public confidence in this important institution is paramount without which the police cannot carry out its functions.
In this context, the prime minister's call for an independent enquiry into this naked ear squat case is a good thing in that it signals that the police exercise of power is subject to scrutiny and public accountability. It remains that political will be summoned to implement the Royal Commission's recommendation to institute an independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission.
These mechanisms of accountability are necessary to prevent abuse of police power by those who are black sheep and will help restore some public confidence.
The above moves should not be resisted because without confidence being restored by institution of these checks and balances, the police might in other cases be profiled by the public as having abused their powers even when in specific cases they have not done so.