Independent institutions needed now

AS the nation gears itself up for the 14th general election, it is inevitable that political parties will try to woo their electorate with promises. And try they should, to display policies they believe in and would implement if given the mandate to rule.

Civil society groups have also launched initiatives to pressure politicians to commit to what they consider to be priorities for the country's future. Of the latter, two coalitions – Governance, Integrity, Accountability and Transparency (GIAT, a group of independent organisations) and Gabungan Kiri (a group of left-leaning individuals) – have emerged with proposals they feel important. What is common among their proposals is a strong emphasis on good governance, transparency and independent institutions.

The call for institutions that are independent from the executive is not new. Activists and opposition politicians have long derided the highly-centralised system of government in Malaysia, stating that the executive is given too much power. An ideal balance would see the other arms of government, namely the judiciary and legislative, as equally robust and able to carry out their duties independently without the fear of political interference. Whether the interference takes place is another matter altogether; that the possibility remains open is sufficient for concern.

The danger of an all-powerful executive is made evident when the rules governing the country are no longer non-partisan but lean more favourably towards one side over another. The court sentencing of PKR Member of Parliament Rafizi Ramli to 30 months' jail for revealing banking details related to the National Feedlot Corporation Sdn Bhd has raised eyebrows. The case involved some RM250 million in public funds spent on the cattle-rearing project in Gemas that no longer has any cattle or staff, and Rafizi had exposed the company's purchase of luxury condominium units in 2011.

The Attorney-General's Chambers needs immediate addressing, where there should be a clear separation between the role of the public prosecutor and that of the attorney-general. Currently, the two roles are fused into one person, which is a conflict of interest since one person's role is to prosecute any wrongdoing and act on behalf of public interest, while the other is to be principal legal adviser to the government. The conflict of interest is bound to arise if and when there are cases in which public and government interests clash.

The legislative arm of government is equally crucial in keeping the government accountable. Parliament is where our elected representatives essentially are supposed to make the laws that govern us, and raise questions on our behalf. Unless they are part of the ruling government today, however, members of Parliament unfortunately have fewer opportunities to do this than we imagine. Because bills are tabled at the last minute, MPs do not have enough time to study draft bills and comprehensively critique them. Ideally each ministry should have a cross-partisan parliamentary select committee that has access to ministry accounts for regular scrutinising, which would greatly increase the chances of spotting mismanagement of funds early on, as opposed to letting corrupt scandals balloon out of proportion at which point the money is no longer recoverable.

Of course, within the executive itself, certain agencies must also be given the independence to carry out their tasks. In fact, the integrity of their institutions very much depends on their independence; the lack thereof would make a mockery of their ability to execute their duties effectively. Two key institutions are the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) and the Election Commission, the latter being particularly relevant this election year.

The MACC is of special concern, given their heavy responsibilities of investigating corruption and recommending prosecutions. Considering numerous corruption cases that have plagued our country in recent years, it is more imperative than ever that they are given the right to investigate cases freely. Some ways of addressing this include having the MACC be answerable to Parliament instead of the prime minister, allowing them to hire and fire their staff (right now they draw from the common civil service pool), and having a commission that has some independent representatives drawn from civil society or professional bodies.

Recently, it was reported that MACC withdrew 47 of its certified integrity officers from ministries and agencies, replaced by in-house integrity officers trained by the National Integrity and Good Governance Department. It is positive that there is a greater focus on the mainstreaming and institutionalisation of integrity and good governance, which is a much broader scope than looking at just corruption alone, since many incidents may not strictly fall into the "corrupt" category but are considered problematic under a good governance agenda. However, to more holistically address these issues, officers working on both anti-corruption and integrity cases should be collaborating instead.

Our failure at protecting the integrity and independence of these crucial institutions will come at a heavy cost. As the younger generations of Malaysians observe there is no respect for the rule of law at the highest levels of power, they too are unlikely to adhere to the rules. This presents a more serious problem: what values are we passing on to our children? Why teach them honesty, integrity and uprightness when these values do not pay off in the long run? If we believe fundamentally in preserving a society that upholds good morals for the sake of the individual and the collective, we must be serious about reforming the institutions of government and nation that are supposed to protect us all. And so should the political parties that aim to get our votes.

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