Empower our graft busters

"THE Anti-Corruption Agency (ACA) is not independent!" Such utterances may be considered common when made by opposition politicians and NGO types, as the public perception of the anti-graft body had never been very good.
But when this statement was uttered at a public lecture at Universiti Sains Malaysia in 2001, many jaws, including mine, dropped in disbelief.

This was because the speaker who had uttered the statement was none other than the serving ACA director-general Datuk Ahmad Zaki Husin who was there to present his lecture entitled, "Curbing corruption in Malaysia: Issues and challenges".

Ahmad Zaki's off-the-cuff remark had the entire audience at the Dewan Tuanku Syed Putra auditorium sitting up, as none could imagine the ACA boss himself admitting that the anti-graft organisation was not independent.

"You can only be as effective as the government wants you to be," he said, adding that it is no wonder that people often say the worst kept secret of all is that the key to fighting corruption lies in the political will of the government.

Stressing that the effectiveness of the fight against corruption depends largely on the national leadership of a country, he said the ACA's efforts towards a corrupt-free Malaysian society would be unachievable without political commitment.

"Corruption is worse than prostitution. The latter might endanger the morals of an individual, but the former invariably endangers the morals of the entire country," said Ahmad Zaki, in quoting Austrian writer Karl Kraus.

When his lecture was over, I went up to him and asked how he could, as the ACA's director-general, say he was not independent.

"Oh! I am independent, but the ACA is not independent," was his reply, to which I had to ask for an elaboration.

"Think about it ... who decides how much funds I get, how many investigators I can hire and what equipment I can buy to be effective?" he said.

Just as I was digesting what I thought was an eye-opener, Ahmad Zaki went on. "Listen, if you want to know how serious this government is about fighting corruption, just watch and see if my contract is renewed, in the next few weeks.

"For one, I have just put in a shopping list to hire more investigators and buy RM50 million worth of surveillance equipment ... like gadgets to let us listen through the wall to people talking in a building, and a truck with equipment to let us listen to a conversation on a golf course from a few kilometres away.

"And secondly, I have made a breakthrough and gotten the Swiss government to cooperate with us by releasing bank account details of Tan Sri Eric Chia to assist in our investigations into the Perwaja Steel case," he said.

He told me that I should be able to draw my own conclusions if his contract was not renewed. A few weeks later, it was no surprise that Ahmad Zaki was no longer ACA director-general. (I heard that he was moved to the pardons board and later made income tax commissioner, but he is now a judicial commissioner at the High Court in Shah Alam.)

The government's announcement of the new ACA director-general was, however, a surprise, as the man named as Ahmad Zaki's successor was Sabah's police commissioner, Datuk Seri Zulkipli Mat Noor, who was seconded from the police force.

It was the first in the 34-year history of the ACA and its predecessors by other names, that a police officer had been chosen to head the anti-graft fight.

Some time later, when by chance I met a state ACA director, I asked if he felt any discomfort about the fact that his director-general was a police officer.

Let me categorically state here that I was in no way trying to disparage Zulkipli's reputation as I never knew him, but my comment was made on the basis that he was a member of the police force which was, and still is, the government agency with the largest exposure to graft.

The state ACA director's reply to my query was refreshing, in that he made no attempt to blindly defend his new boss or hide his own feelings.

"I also feel the same way and have the same concern in my mind," he said, adding that he would for the moment carry on doing his work but would keep a close eye on whether his new boss interfered with investigations into police officers.

"If that happens, then I think I will resign," he said.
Well, that man who had openly shared his concerns with me was Datuk Abu Kassim Mohammed, the current chief commissioner of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC), the ACA's successor.

I relate this story to support the proposal by the Special Committee on Corruption, to amend the MACC Act 2009, with a view of giving its chief commissioner security of tenure, like that of federal court judges.

As committee chairman Datuk Seri Mohd Radzi Sheikh Ahmad said, the appointment of the MACC chief commissioner is by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, based on the recommendations of the prime minister, "but (this means) he can be removed due to political pressure".

If the MACC chief commissioner's stature is like that of a judge, then he cannot be arbitrarily dismissed by the executive at his whim and fancy or for political reasons, as a tribunal will be required to hear any move to remove the office holder.

The country had lost a great anti-graft crusader in Ahmad Zaki, who hopefully is continuing his crusade against graft by handing down tough sentences against those found guilty of corruption.

Let us not lose another graft buster, like Abu Kassim, for the wrong reasons.

Freddie Ng is managing editor of theSun. Comments: letters@thesundaily.com