By Tricia Yeoh. First published in The Sun on 26 February 2015.
Congratulations are due to the 26 members of the three independent panels of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC), 19 of whom are new appointees. In his speech, Prime Minister Najib Razak said that the role of the panel members is “significant in boosting the abilities of the MACC as an independent commission.” It is encouraging that he considers it important to have an anti-corruption commission that is independent of the executive.
But whilst it is true that at least several of the new panel members are independent and have in the past been critical of the government, the question still remains: Will this really help in making the MACC independent?
In the past, several high-profile cases contributed to the negative perception amongst the public that it was, in fact, not. These include the death of Pakatan Rakyat political aide Teoh Beng Hock in June 2009 and the way in which MACC officers gave inconsistent testimonies during the Royal Commission of Inquiry, and the MACC’s failure to find elements of corruption in the RM250 million National Feedlot Corporation (NFC) scandal.
The MACC currently comes under the Prime Minister’s Department, from which it also receives funding for its operations. This raises some serious questions as to its independence, especially if it were to receive reports on corruption stemming from this very department it would therefore be expected to investigate.
Despite the three independent panels, in addition to five oversight committees that the MACC has introduced in recent years, there is obviously a need for an all-encompassing solution. One problem is that the MACC’s officers are drawn from the same pool of civil servants, as mandated by the Public Service Commission and run by the Public Service Department. This makes it inherently difficult for the MACC to employ independent officers who would be able to carry out investigations on other civil servants without fear or favour.
The MACC in its present governance structure would still remain tied to the government’s executive influence, and any proposed reform would need to deal with institutional independence, both from the structural and practical standpoints.
To this end, IDEAS, together with the Malaysian Bar Council, has been working closely with other civil society organisations to propose several recommendations. These recommendations are aimed at making the MACC truly independent. The first of which would involve a constitutional amendment to form an independent Anti-Corruption Service Commission that would give the MACC hire-and-fire authority over their own officers. This would mean the MACC is no longer dependent on the Public Service Commission to supply their investigating and case officers.
Of course, the requirements of who can be appointed as Chief Commissioner and members of this service commission would need to be carefully crafted. For instance, only individuals who are of proven moral character and integrity, and with the right experience and competence levels in public affairs, should be considered. In fact, Indonesia’s Anti-Corruption Commission (KPK) goes a step further by having a separate election process for its Chief Commissioner.
There are a great many other proposals that are needed to improve the MACC in its current form. For example, all objectives of the MACC – and of the proposed new service commission – should adhere to the international standards set by the United Nations Convention Against Corruption (UNCAC), whilst oversight mechanisms like requiring the MACC to report directly to Parliament instead of the Prime Minister ought to be considered.
Additional proposals include amending the MACC Act itself to ensure that what is considered “gratification” goes beyond monetary corruption alone, and to empower the MACC to investigate public servants living beyond their means. When discussing any legal reform needed to eradicate corruption, there will also be a need to look at relevant laws like the Whistleblower Protection Act, Official Secrets Act (or rather, pushing for a Freedom of Information Act), and the Witness Protection Act.
There will certainly be arguments both for and against these proposals. Some might consider that the MACC does not actually need a separate service commission in order to behave independently, whilst others may believe that despite all or any legal changes, this would not amount to much since it is implementation that often fails us in this country.
This is why it is important to have a public discussion on such crucial matters that would have a direct impact on our lives – when one of us is wronged, we would expect the institutions to defend us, and as such hope the MACC uncovers corrupt practices that might have affected our wellbeing.
For this reason, IDEAS is organising an open public forum together with the Bar Council on Wednesday 4 March 2015 in the evening, at the Bar Auditorium. During this forum, we hope to deliberate on these proposals and obtain feedback on how these would help to shape MACC into becoming the robust and independent institution we can eventually trust – especially if our lives depended on it.
Tricia Yeoh is the Chief Operating Officer of IDEAS