by Wan Saiful Wan Jan. First published in The Star 23 June 2015
It has become fashionable for critics to express dissatisfaction every time the Auditor General presents his report to parliament. So when the second report this year was tabled on 15 June 2015, the reaction was generally expected.
But the reaction from Public Accounts Committee (PAC) Chairman Datuk Nur Jazlan Mohamed is particularly important. Nur Jazlan who is also IDEAS’ Council member this time said that he is disappointed with the performance of many government agencies because they have failed to improve.
He also said that not long ago he praised government officials for showing improvements every time the Auditor General’s report is published. But he felt compelled to retract that praise because this time it is particularly bad. He went on to say that many of the problems originate from the attitude of civil servants. Apparently the quality of our civil servants has deteriorated, and they don’t even bother to read the rules.
When the PAC Chairman made such a bold statement, you know that there is something really wrong in the way civil servants manage our money. It is ironic that the Prime Minister recently announced a bonus for our civil servants despite such abysmal indictment.
Under Nur Jazlan, the PAC as been doing a much better job in identifying weaknesses in government machinery and in demanding accountability. In fact, thanks to the PAC, the public now knows about the risk posed by Pembinaan PFI Sdn Bhd, a government-linked company that has among the biggest liability among Malaysia’s GLCs. The company has been off the audit radar for almost 10 years despite the large amount of debt that it has accumulated.
The work of bodies like the PAC is important in our push for better governance in the country. The issues the PAC look into are not necessarily about corruption. Their responsibility is wider, covering also problems such as leakages and failure to adhere to published policies and procedures.
Fighting corruption on the other hand is more commonly associated with the Malaysian Anti Corruption Commission (MACC). I am still waiting to see if the MACC would act on a recent admission by Home Minister Dato’ Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi that a Special Branch report found that around 80 percent of our border enforcement officers are involved in corruption.
Nevertheless, I am very aware that even if the MACC were to start an investigation, that is only half of the journey. The other half lies outside of the MACC’s jurisdiction, and that is the prosecution of corruption cases.
Our system is designed such that the MACC, just like the police, can only investigate and not prosecute. Prosecution is the sole discretion of the Attorney General, who doubles up as our Public Prosecutor.
I have no problem with the MACC not having the power to prosecute. In fact, I think it is right to keep prosecutorial powers away from the investigation agency. Back in 2012, we at IDEAS looked into this issue and compared the experience of Indonesia and Hong Kong in fighting corruption.
We published the findings in July 2012 and concluded that it really does not matter whether or not the MACC has prosecution power. Instead what is most important is the integrity of the judiciary and the Attorney General’s office. Any effort to improve the quality of MACC, therefore, will have to be accompanied by reform in both the judiciary and the Attorney General’s Office. Focusing on the MACC alone is not sufficient.
If we want to see a more effective fight against corruption we must separate the roles of the Attorney General as legal advisor to the government and Public Prosecutor who prosecutes cases in court.
Let me justify that with a simple analogy using the case of the allegedly corrupt border enforcement officers. Let’s say the MACC did investigate the allegation and found that the problem runs all the way up to ministerial level. The MACC then passes the files to the Attorney General. How much confidence do we have that the Attorney General will prosecute his friends in Cabinet? It is obvious that as legal advisor to the government, he is conflicted. How can he prosecute the very party he is supposed to advise.
There are actually many more proposals to improve the MACC that deserve public attention. If you are interested in this topic, I suggest you search for reports published by the Special Committee on Corruption now chaired by Tan Sri Abu Zahar Ujang. This bipartisan committee whose membership consists of members of the Dewan Rakyat and Dewan Negara regularly comes up with some very good ideas.
One of those ideas is for the MACC to be given independence in recruiting their own officers. This suggestion has been mooted since 2010 and it makes a lot of sense. To be truly independent, MACC cannot continue to be dependent on seconded staff from the Public Service Commission because this creates a conflict of loyalty.
But unfortunately this idea has not received the attention that it deserves from the government. There are times when I ask myself if our ministers are really serious in the fight against corruption. For if they are really serious, why are they ignoring sensible ideas coming from a committee whose membership is from among their own colleagues.
Don’t they realise that the longer they choose to do nothing, more people will feel that they have things to hide?
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Wan Saiful Wan Jan is chief executive of the Institute for Democracy and economic Affairs (www.ideas.org.my)