It is telling that during the Suhakam inquiry into the Bersih 3.0 rally a police officer revealed when questioned that he did not know that the right to assemble was constitutionally guaranteed for the people of this country.
This lack of knowledge is of concern naturally because we are talking about a public servant with a great deal of power (he can shoot us with his pistol after all), and it is important that he understands that the limits on his power does not depend simply on whatever Standard Operating Procedure he may have but also our rights as citizens.
However, knowledge can be gained. Police officers do take courses and some of these courses will have components of Constitutional Law in them. I have taught a diploma course on Constitutional Law and the officers in my class appeared to have grasped the concept.
Knowledge, therefore, is not really the issue here; it is the corresponding attitude towards that knowledge which truly matters.
In the past few weeks there have been many incidents that illustrate the paradox that occurs when one pays lip service to a principle without truly understanding its importance and ideals.
The Peaceful Assembly Act was supposed to be a law that would allow a more liberal approach to public gatherings, but instead we see it being used to actually hinder such gatherings.
The Janji Demokrasi gathering was deemed illegal before it occurred because proper procedures for asking permission was not followed as demanded by the Act. Investigations on organisers and participants of Janji Demokrasi are also currently being conducted, again under the auspices of the Act. A green rally in Pahang is being investigated because a person who is deemed underage by the Act was suspected of taking part.
All this fuss over what were peaceful gatherings.
I have said before that there was little wrong with the previous laws (the Police Act) regarding public gatherings. The Police Act gave a lot of discretion to the police to allow or not allow public gatherings, this is true; however if there was a proper understanding and appreciation of the Constitution, the police should, by and large, allow any public gathering as long as it is not dangerous or violent in nature.
The problem with the Police Act was one of attitude and not the law per se.
This same attitude persists and it can be seen in the implementation of the new Peaceful Assembly Act.
What is needed in the country therefore is not even more, so called liberal laws, but a true appreciation and respect for the human rights of the people of this nation. The police have to understand that their role is not simply about enforcing the law for whatever government is in power.
Their role is to enforce the law in the spirit of the Constitution and the freedoms that it guarantees for everybody.
Speaking of attitudes, the furore over some people stepping on the pictures of Datuk Seri Najib Razak also reflects an unfortunate attitude that is still prevalent amongst Malaysians, or at least some segments of Malaysians.
Frankly, it does not bother me in the slightest that photographs are being stepped on. It bothers me if the actual person is being stomped or if there is a real threat to their life, but stepping on the picture? So what? Big deal.
It is rude sure, but we are not talking about some deity or religious symbol here. We are talking about an elected official; and obviously an elected official that some people dislike very much.
The outrage and subsequent investigations and arrests show that there is still this feudal mentality amongst some quarters that raises what are essentially public servants onto the pedestal of Rajas.
There is far too much subservience in our society. Observe functions where a minister turns up. Immediately there will be the sound of shuffling chairs as people stand up. Why should we do so? Why the grovelling and hand kissing? Democratically elected officials are just like any one of us and to afford them such obsequiousness is unseemly and an affront to the entire idea of democracy and equality amongst all people.
Recent events have thrown into clear light once again how far we have to grow as a nation in order to be a true democracy. How much there is still to be done before there can be a deep and meaningful appreciation of our rights as human beings and the need to cast off any remnants of feudalism from our shoulders in order for us to live with the dignity that those same rights are meant to ensure.