Column - Fighting corruption a decade later

THE beginning of the year is as good a time as any to reflect upon the direction the country is heading towards.

Ten years ago, Malaysians were just beginning to appreciate the opening up of public space. Then prime minister Tun Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, or more familiarly known as Pak Lah, had taken over in 2003, and then won a landslide victory for the ruling Barisan Nasional in 2004, riding on a wave of public confidence in his commitment to reforming a government that had lost a whopping 14 parliamentary seats in the previous 1999 general election.

What was most distinct about his administration was his promise to clamp down on corruption and therefore empowering the anti-corruption agencies. Related to this was the general change in the sociopolitical air – civil society felt freer and more able to organise public seminars related to various issues previously deemed sensitive.

More significantly, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) was established in 2004, an upgraded version of the previously known Anti-Corruption Agency (ACA), with the idea of being a regional hub for anti-corruption capacity and capability building to “fight corruption by promoting best practices in investigation, monitoring and enforcement …”

Modelled after Hong Kong’s Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), it was meant to be a more robust agency now given greater teeth to fight graft in the country.

The MACC did go through significant challenges, chief of which was the incident in 2006 during which political aide Teoh Beng Hock was found to have fallen to his death at the MACC Selangor headquarters in Shah Alam. Embroiled in controversy, the investigations and court cases eventually concluded that it was, in fact, a homicide that took place. Although the police did not eventually find the perpetrator, the MACC as an institution did take measures to improve itself after admitting there were flaws in its system.

One of the reform measures was to set up five independent committees, namely the Anti-Corruption Advisory Board, the Special Committee on Corruption, the Complaints Committee, the Operations Evaluation Panel, and the Consultation and Corruption Prevention Panel. These committees would be tasked to provide oversight to the operations and investigation processes of the MACC, and many individuals of good public standing were appointed to fill these positions subsequently, although these mechanisms did not sufficiently boost public confidence.

Over the last year, the MACC has been in the spotlight for numerous reasons, having investigated 1MDB and other cases related to it, but then later raided by the police for reportedly having leaked documents.

Has the anti-corruption commission that was initially promised to be reformed and strengthened all those years ago instead been eroded and weakened?

The MACC in fact ought to be an independent institution given the resources to fight corruption. But the 2017 budget saw a laundry list of financial cuts, including in investigation and surveillance, law and prosecution, prevention, administrative and forensic services, as well as record and information management, and community education. How is it possible for the MACC to continue functioning with the same expectations but with a much lower budget?

One of the core reforms that some of us in civil society have called for in recent years is an independent MACC that reports to Parliament and has greater autonomy both financially and in hiring and firing its own staff.

The MACC currently reports to the Prime Minister’s Department, which surely is a source of potential conflict of interest. Having a truly independent MACC would allow it to truly exercise its duties in an unbiased fashion without fear or favour.

The new MACC Chief Commissioner, Datuk Dzulkifli Ahmad, recently announced that he wants to combat corruption and abuse of power, saying that “for those who are still intoxicated by bribery, please listen to this warning: stop the corruption and power abuse, and surrender yourself!” In the same speech, he also urged Malaysians to support the agency in its mission. The MACC’s recent action in the Sabah Water Department corruption case is a good sign that it is taking steps in that direction.

However, the MACC simply cannot carry out this task alone. The experiences over the last decade would surely have taught the administration some lessons: that apart from the government it serves, positive public perception is crucial to achieving its goals. Working with, instead of against, the community that it tries to educate is crucial if it wants to seriously fight corruption all round.

This is where independent civil society organisations can in fact come in to support the MACC in its efforts to fight corruption. Other expert bodies like accountants and lawyers can also support MACC’s work as many investigations involve technical and forensic accounting matters. However, the MACC must also demonstrate its willingness to have frank discussions and dialogue with civil society.

The MACC has seen tremendous transformations over the last decade and more, but fighting corruption seems to be even more challenging than ever. It is hoped that it is in these trying times partnerships and collaborations can be forged; all those in favour of fighting corruption – and this must be a priority this year – should surely come together.

Comments: letters@thesundaily.com