We Are Not Fighters

13 March 2017

With so many high-profile incidents in the news, bodyguarding is at a low ebb. But a fix is around the corner…

Think bodyguard these days, and it’s less Kevin Costner and more fanny packs and jacked arms. The bigger, the better; aside from the faux-status that being surrounded by literal hired muscle symbolises, it is meant to function as a deterrent, in a “I can have them beat you up” sort of way.

Which isn’t the point of bodyguarding at all. Not according to Bakrim Ebok, former decorated police officer, bodyguard of 22 years turned trainer, and ex-president of Persatuan Pengawal Peribadi (BGM). “They may have big arms,” Bakrim says, “but how fast can they run?” The point is the protection of the principal (the client) above all. Which usually involves shuttling the principal away from danger, not facing said danger head on with literal and figurative guns blazing.

“We are not fighters,” Bakrim says. “That’s the first thing I teach in my training sessions.”

Bakrim has been a bodyguard for over two decades.

Not that real bodyguards – those with actual training and certification – are incapable of staring down danger. Quite the opposite, in fact. Bakrim shows us two videos of his training sessions on his phone. The first has him shooting a revolver at a target being held by a trainee. The trainee doesn’t flinch. Bakrim is that good – every shot is dead centre.

The second, straight out of Hollywood, has Bakrim hold his gun upside down, and fire rapidly with his pinkie. Again, dead centre.

The distinction between professional bodyguards and “bodyguards” isn’t some matter of professional discrimination, which Bakrim says he was accused of when heading BGM. “People got angry because I wanted only professional bodyguards in the organisation,” he says. “I wanted only those who had undergone vetting and training, not just ‘driver-cum-bodyguards’.”

Bakrim demonstrating practical shooting – which more closely mimics real-life situations, where hostiles don’t necessarily stand around waiting to be shot at.

The problem arises when those without training are hired on the cheap by employers looking to cut costs. And it is a problem, because inadequately trained bodyguards pose not just a danger to their principals, in that they may not be able to analyse danger situations; the general public, in that they might be handling firearms without really knowing when and how to use them; but themselves as well, because they may not know the legal limits of their profession, which can end with jail or worse.  

We paint him a scenario: if someone comes charging at a bodyguard’s principal with a machete, can he or she fight back or use lethal force?

Bakrim answers with a question. “At what point does your right to self-defence start? How do you define an imminent threat? If I explain this to you, we’ll be here for hours.”

Bakrim seems like the last person in Malaysia who needs to practise his shooting skills, but he still does.

But essentially it boils down to this. Under the eyes of the law, even servicemen do not have absolute impunity to employ lethal force – and Bakrim should know, because he has been in court 39 times for shooting 39 criminals as a cop – what more regular dudes off the street being told, “Here’s a gun, you’re a bodyguard now.”

Besides potentially being charged with crimes in the execution of their “duties” – which sometimes aren’t even legit, as witnessed in recent incidents of errant VIPs siccing their bodyguards onto threats real or perceived – these uncertified bodyguards are also being asked to put their lives on the line without adequate protection.

Amir: “As a policeman, my job was to protect the people. As a bodyguard, my job is to protect the principal.”

It’s an unfortunate situation made worse when those errant VIPs are actual criminals. What is a bodyguard to do when their bosses are involved in criminal activities? “Then they are accomplices,” says Amir, personal bodyguard to a high-profile NGO leader, and who, like Bakrim, also left Polis Diraja Malaysia (PDRM) to work as a bodyguard. “If the bodyguard witnesses a crime, and covers for the principal, then they don’t get any special protections.”

Incidentally, Amir also shares something else with Bakrim: both have served as bodyguards to Anwar Ibrahim, at different points of the opposition leader’s career. Being ex-cops, both men have an intimate knowledge of their legal limits as bodyguards, and where their jobs begin and end. “As a policeman, my job was to protect the people. As a bodyguard, my job is only to protect the principal,” he says.

Even certification doesn’t give a bodyguard special rights. A great chunk of existing regulations concern the legal limits of the firearm, which is usually owned by security companies or the principal. The firearm can be discharged to protect the owner and his or her property, but within reason. “Obviously you can’t shoot someone if they ding the boss’s car,” Amir says. Aside from that, bodyguards largely have the same rights as civilians, which the untrained might not know.

Amir’s principal has received death threats, so there’s no slacking off on the job.

“You can’t see who’s certified and who’s not just by looking at them,” Amir says, “but if you see the way they work, you’ll know.” While the transition from serviceman to bodyguard might seem logical given the skills overlap, even policemen who are assigned protective roles for ministers still have to undergo training.

What exactly is in this training? Bakrim pulls out a training module from his backpack. Besides the “techniques and tactics” of escorting the principal, bodyguards have to be trained in basic first aid, threat analysis, weapons use in close protection, and attack on principal (AOP) drills – lots of them. “I spend an entire day just making trainees do ground rolls in a field,” Bakrim says.

There’s a lot to learn, which is why the Home Ministry announced in December that it would require all bodyguards to undergo training and be commissioned by PDRM. Bakrim was personally involved in the two workshops that led to this ruling, which covered the need to have only trained personnel handle guns, as well as the basic standards and labour protections for the profession.

They look and feel like toys, belying the gravity of having the raw power to end lives – making their falling into untrained hands very problematic.

Timely too, as the profession has been self-regulating for too long, due to ex-servicemen monopolising these jobs in the ’80s, who you could trust not to lose their heads in danger situations. Regulation might even bring about some fairness in pay as well, especially for the drivers, bouncers and moonlighting bodybuilders thrust into a very dangerous line of work.

Relatively dangerous, at least. We ask Amir about his pay, given that his principal has received death threats, putting him in potential crosshairs. He says it isn’t much, but he isn’t complaining. “Those are the rates, what are you going to do?” he says. “If you look at bodyguards overseas, they get paid a lot more. We don’t get paid as much here because Malaysia is still quite peaceful.”

Which underlines the importance of regulation, as it’s in everyone’s best interests – VIPs, the public, and bodyguards themselves – that things stay that way.

By Jason S. Ganesan

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