By Tricia Yeoh, Chief Operating Officer at IDEAS. First published in The Sun 7 January 2016
Over the last few months, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) has been one of the few government bodies undergoing tremendous pressure. Most recently, rumours circulated that its Chief Commissioner, Tan Sri Abu Kassim Mohamed might be replaced for health reasons, although this has since been denied by Tan Sri Abu Kassim himself.
This had initially raised some speculation, given that the MACC had just handed over its investigation papers to the Attorney-General’s Chambers on the RM2.6 billion donation to the prime minister’s personal bank account, and on the Finance Ministry’s wholly-owned subsidiary SRC International.
But if the rumour had turned out to be true, this should not in fact come as a shock. That the Prime Minister has sole discretionary powers to remove the head of a government agency is not too surprising; after all, the MACC is not really an independent body and still reports to the Prime Minister’s Department. I have also pointed out in an earlier column that much power is concentrated in the hands of this one man in the highest of positions, an unfortunately systemic problem we have inherited from previous administrations.
What is more disturbing is that the very institution tasked to unveil corruption is not in fact independent. One would have thought that such an entity must be given operational and financial independence in order to carry out its investigative duties in a neutral way, without fear or favour.
One only needs to recall the unceremonious manner in which the police targeted several MACC officers in August, when there were supposed information leaks related to the investigation into the 1MDB issue, as well as raids conducted on an MACC prosecutor’s office, with his documents taken away. Would all this have happened if the MACC were an independent institution?
Over the last year and a half, IDEAS, together with the Malaysian Bar and other civil society organisations like Transparency International and the Centre to Combat Corruption and Cronyism have worked to propose a complete revamp of the way in which the MACC is set up and runs.
A public campaign of this proposal was recently launched at a first public forum carried out in Kuching in December last year and support from the local Sarawakians. Sarawak, too, has seen its fair share of corruption scandals having gone unaddressed, most of which are related to logging contracts. The campaign will continue in other cities across Malaysia over the months to come.
The proposal is essentially to create a new Independent Anti-Corruption Commission that is constitutionally mandated, with its own hiring and firing abilities. The members of this new IACC would consist of at least 40 percent civil society and industry experts, whilst the rest come from public service. More importantly, members of the IACC ought to be voted in by Parliament.
In this new model, the MACC’s existing oversight bodies (namely the Consultation and Corruption Prevention Panel, Complaints Committee, Operations Review Panel and the Anti-Corruption Advisory Board) would be incorporated and absorbed into the IACC, whilst the Special Committee on Corruption would be retained and renamed as the Parliamentary Select Committee on Corruption.
What is most important is that the IACC will have an expanded role and function, which is in setting policy and direction in combatting corruption. A separate body, the Anti-Corruption Agency (which will report to the IACC), should be the actual body carrying out operational investigative work, and which will recommend whether to prosecute an individual or not.
Some may question whether or not it makes a difference even if the MACC (or the IACC, if this proposal is eventually taken up) is independent, since prosecutorial powers still lie with the Attorney-General’s Chambers. However, giving the MACC prosecutorial powers is not necessarily the solution.
In Malaysia, the Office of the AG is fused with that of the Office of the Public Prosecutor, which causes tension in the administration of duties and functions. The AG has sole discretion on whether or not to prosecute someone on a criminal case, which has direct conflict of interest with his role of Public Prosecutor, which is as legal adviser to the Cabinet. What would be more effective in the long run is a constitutional amendment to separate the two offices.
Many of these points are not new. Pushing for an independent Anti-Corruption Commission that reports instead to Parliament, and calling for the separation of the AG’s Chambers seem to be the most logical basic thing to do – in a country run according to the rule of law, that is.
Without an independent MACC, Malaysians can rest assured we will continue to have high-level corruption scandals go unaddressed, to the detriment of citizens whose tax-paying public funds pour out into other undeserving deep pockets.
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Tricia Yeoh is the Chief Operating Officer at IDEAS