Bukit Aman: Planned crackdown on drug use among civil servants in Malaysia raises spectre of possible witch hunt

NCID director Datuk Mohd Khalil Kader Mohd, told a press conference that staff with suspicious behaviour will be ‘monitored’ and hauled in for urine screening. — Picture by Sayuti Zainudin
NCID director Datuk Mohd Khalil Kader Mohd, told a press conference that staff with suspicious behaviour will be ‘monitored’ and hauled in for urine screening. — Picture by Sayuti Zainudin

KUALA LUMPUR, Jan 21 ― Azlan M, 32, has struggled with insomnia for months. Already of slim build, he is now almost gaunt. This has led to days of tardy arrival and truancy at the government agency where he works.

Insomnia, a serious condition that deprives one of sleep, also leads to a suppressed appetite. At work he seems mostly aloof, while colleagues say he often disappears during lunch break.

He needs medical help. But under a new police operation, he could instead be reported, investigated and called in for a urine test as Azlan seems to be exhibiting the signs of drug addiction.

On January 7, the Bukit Aman Narcotics Crime Investigation Department (NCID) launched Operation Libero Purus, Latin for “total freedom”, a campaign to detect and root out public sector workers “involved” with illicit drugs.

NCID director Datuk Mohd Khalil Kader Mohd, told a press conference that staff with suspicious behaviour will be “monitored” and hauled in for urine screening.

The story of Azlan, though fictional, is the sort of potential injustice many an innocent individual could experience in the crackdown and underpins the ethical issues that may arise from a campaign to eradicate illicit substance abuse.

“To point fingers as to who looks like a person who uses drugs is totally discriminatory,” said a senior government official critical of the operation.

“Because everyone can just just point to someone they don’t like, just accuse them of using drugs,” the aide, who wished to remain anonymous, said.

“We do this then we are one step closer to becoming like the Philippines,” he added, referring to the war on drugs in that country which has led to extrajudicial killings.

Physical profiling

Depending on the severity of abuse, suspects will either be sent to state rehabilitation centres or punished under Section 15(1) (a) of the Dangerous Drugs Act which provides for a fine not exceeding RM5,000, or a maximum two years' jail.

Severity is defined by the level of illicit substance found in the person’s urine, according to NCID officers Malay Mail spoke to.

To comb through the million strong civil service, Operation Libero Purus will rely on “intelligence” from heads of government departments and agencies and “integrity officers”, who will prepare a list of suspects that would be subsequently submitted to the NCID.

Most of these senior government officers are not trained to diagnose users, which means identifying suspects will be purely based on individual assessment of one’s “character, physical attributes and work performance.”

Mohd Khalil told Malay Mail in an interview on January 9 that only “shady characters” will be “monitored” and hauled in for urine screening should the police find grounds to suspect narcotics use, although he did not explain how the force expects to gather such information.

“I cannot reveal everything but believe me, we have our ways,” the NCID director said.

But proponents of decriminalisation have argued that a screening process that relies primarily on physical and behavioural profiling is unscientific, dangerously flawed and can be highly prone to abuse.

Even those trained to identify substance abusers use tools for screening that are still based on a tenuous model that constructs the abuser and addict through archaic stereotypes, they said.

Substance abuse disorder is also a highly complex problem. For example, “addiction” and “dependence” are two distinct conditions; one can be addicted without being dependent while dependence does not necessarily entail addiction. The two require different medical treatments.

With Operation Libero Puros, human rights lawyers said there is a risk that the authorities will resort to a unitary and punitive approach that critics say may worsen the problem.

While Mohd Khalil gave his assurance that rehabilitation is only meant for “addicts” and “dependents” while “abusers” will be fined or jailed, he made no distinction between the two.

“The police is not going to resolve the drug problem that we have in Malaysia by running this operation,” said Abdul Rashid Ismail, former Human Rights Association of Malaysia (Hakam) president.

“The outcome of this operation will only result in individuals with addiction problems sent to prison where it will make their condition worse.”


Then there is also the possibility of victimisation due to a personal grudge or feud.

Abdul Rashid said heads of departments or government agencies, who are excluded from the screening, could simply name anyone which could draw negative attention and stigmatisation even if the person’s urine test turns out negative.

“The reality is that a drug user may not at all look like one. Whereas a non-drug user may well look like a drug user,” the human rights lawyer argued.

“This approach allows abuse. Any person can be named. Once the person is named, there is a stigma attached to him and he may be shunned by the rest of his working community... it violates his right to the presumption of innocence, his right to privacy and his right to a livelihood.”

These issues were raised with the Public Service Department (JPA), but its director, Datuk Mohd Khairul Adib Abd Rahman, responded by saying the department “fully supports” the operation without directly addressing the questions raised by its detractors.

“The JPA would like to state that it fully supports Operation Libero Purus by the PDRM to detect civil servants involved with illicit drugs use,” he said in a statement sent to Malay Mail.

For now the police are confident there are enough safeguards in place to vet and filter out “flimsy” intelligence so as to avoid abuse and that due diligence will be adhered to when suspects are under observation.

“First is we won’t immediately punish the suspects,” the outgoing police anti-narcotics chief said.

“We will monitor first and gather intel. If we see there is reason to believe they are involved with drugs, then only will we have their urine tested.

“And if it comes out negative then all is well. They can just go back to work as usual.”

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