On 24th February 2016, IDEAS organised a public forum at Syuen Hotel, Ipoh titled, “Catching Monkeys: Fighting Corruption in Malaysia”. Speakers included Shaza Onn, Senior Executive at IDEAS, Cynthia Gabriel, Executive Director of The Center to Combat Corruption and Cronyism (C4) and Dato Sri Hj. Zakaria, former Deputy Commissioner of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC).
Shaza Onn kicked off the forum with a brief overview of the recent financial scandals that have plagued the nation, and the limitations currently faced by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission in carrying out its duties to combat corruption.
Four proposals were then suggested to reform the MACC, to make it more effective and independent. The proposals are as follows:
- Creating an Independent Anti-Corruption Commission (IACC). At present, the Chief Commissioner (of the MACC) and investigative officers fall under the Public Service Department of the government. This means that officials may easily be removed or transferred if he/she investigates any wrongdoing by senior government officials. A new constitutional commission would resolve this problem, for it will possess full autonomy to determine the operations of the MACC – including its recruitment policy.
- Expanding the power of the MACC to investigate individuals living beyond his/her means. An investigation is to be triggered immediately, upon discovery of this situation.
- Amending the Official Secrets Act 1972 and Whistleblower Protection Act 2010.
- Separating the offices of the Attorney General (AG) and the Public Prosecutor (PP). The AG is the government’s lead lawyer who is appointed by the Prime Minister, and in Malaysia, he is ALSO the only person who can decide whether or not to persecute an individual for corruption charges. These dual roles are schizophrenic in nature and represent a conflict of interest. The office of the AG should be separate from that of the Public Prosecutor.
Cynthia Gabriel spoke next about several irresponsible public servants who “have been monkeying around with public funds”. She quoted several examples from the Auditor General’s report, including a nutrition program for underprivileged kids in Sarawak, where funds that were supposed to be used to buy food baskets but were used to buy other assets instead and the unexplained loss of 309 police items between 2010 and 2012.
She also noted that the MACC only has the power to investigate, but not to prosecute. That power lies solely with the AG. She gave the example of former Sarawak Chief Minister, Taib Mahmud, who was clearly living beyond his means and had over 400 MACC investigation papers on him, but was never charged in court.
Cythia argued that the Whistleblower Act 2010 did not adequately protect whistleblowers from speaking out. As such, she said that whistleblowing is a ‘dangerous responsibility’ because the person lodging the complaint might lose their confidentiality. Moreover, she identified a serious trust deficit between the people and the MACC (and other public institutions), resulting in individuals not lodging complaints against corruption in the first place. She noted that this problem is worrisome because “if no one wants to speak about it, then we can forget about fighting corruption in Malaysia”. She also spoke about the need to reform the Official Secrets Act. She claimed that this act facilitates corruption, for it blinds the public as to how their tax dollars are spent.
She ended her session by stating that these proposed changes require political will in order to be implemented. She also warned that citizens cannot rely on the government alone to catalyse reforms and that “the people must come together to voice their will for change”. “We need public institutions to protect our rights, otherwise the politicians and the people in power will continue monkeying us”
Datuk Zakaria took the floor next. He started by reminding the audience that any proposed changes to the constitution required a 2/3 majority in parliament. “We can propose whatever we like, but unless you have political power in parliament, all you can do is TALK”. He also noted the fact that many of the suggestions proposed, for example the ability of the MACC to hire and fire its staff independently, had already been proposed, but were never adopted.
Datuk Zakaria noted that the MACC Act sometimes interfered with his duties. For example, the MACC cannot trigger its own investigations, someone has to lodge a report first. Also, under the Act, the MACC only has the authority to investigate instances of corruption and to handover its findings to the courts, “the rest is up to the AG”. He also said that corruption affects every Malaysian and that Islamic teachings inspired him to oppose corruption and abuses of power.
On the issue of trust deficit, he said that the public ought to “leave it to the responsible bodies to conduct investigations” and that the MACC is working closely with IDEAS, C4 and others in the GIAT coalition to bridge the gap between the people and the public institutions.
Mr Surindar Singh, Perak state representative to the Bar Council, gave some concluding remarks in the final 10 minutes. He reminded the crowd that “the fight for corruption is a never-ending task” and that the way to eradicate corruption is to educate the population on the ills of corruption, starting with teaching children in school.
He also said that “Malaysia has sufficient laws to combat corruption, but we lack an independent enforcement agencies. Everything still falls under the umbrella of the government”. So what happens when the government itself is guilty of wrongdoing?
He opined that it is still not too late to change the present situation, and that all changes begin with an idea and suggestions for improvement.
The event ended at 10.30 pm after a quick Q&A session.