In the third part of the KINIBIZ interview with Mohd Sheriff Mohd Kassim, the former Treasury secretary-general shares his perspective on corruption, the freedom of Malaysians as well as the independence of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission.
As a RM2.6 billion “donation” scandal erupted from July this year revolving around the prime minister himself, a sequence of incredulous events saw investigations into the affair effectively halted. This reignited public anger against corruption, spurring talk of regulating political funding and raising further doubt on the credibility and independence of public institutions.
How free is our society compared to the immediate years after independence? Do we have sufficient checks and balances for power? Mohd Sheriff Mohd Kassim gives his take on these and more.
What is your take on the corruption here? Based on what you have seen before and what you have seen now, is it worse or should we be doing more?
I think G25 itself has come out with a view that political funding has gone to an extent where it has made corruption in this country go from bad to worse.
That is why we welcome very much the announcement by the prime minister to appoint a consultative committee to look at whether political funding should be regulated. Our public statement is to give support to the idea from the prime minister. And hopefully this time it will really be done and there will be no more postponement.
I think in one meeting organised by IDEAS, the DAP representative who was there said it is not true that opposition parties reject the idea of having regulation on political funding. But what they want to see is that there should be regulation not only on receiving the funds but also on the spending of the funds.
You’re talking about a limit to the amount of political funding.
Yes. So the consultative committee should examine that aspect too because I think the opposition parties feel that if the ruling party is able to spend such a huge amount of money on the voters then there is no level playing field come election time.
So maybe there is some truth in what they are saying that you must also limit the spending or declare the spending.
Secondly I think the opposition parties would also like to see equal access to the media including the government-owned media like the television stations. Because if all political parties compete in the elections on a level playing field, then they don’t have to have a huge budget to get votes. It is when they feel that they have to spend so much money to get votes that they go for donations from very dubious sources sometimes.
But if the playing field is level they can reduce dependence on money and go straight to the people through the media.
But there’s no doubt, even internationally the western countries I think are putting pressure on emerging nations. Look at Obama’s speech when he visited Africa. He told them that they must clean up their politics. Otherwise people will lose confidence in the democratic system – that’s when extremists take advantage.
In Muslim countries the extremists are the religious fanatics. They will start using arguments about jihad, about theocracy, about going back to the system in the old days. But as we all know, that kind of system is no longer relevant in modern times.
What do you feel about the current situation where there has been a RM2.6 billion deposit into the prime minister’s accounts?
I think first of all the investigation should be expedited. I don’t know why it’s taking so long. But I think they should reveal something to the public to assure that there is progress, even though it is an interim statement.
To wait until all the investigations are done is taking too long and getting people more and more worried that there might be a cover-up. When these kinds of thoughts are implanted in people’s minds then they start losing confidence. Because if you don’t deal with it squarely now, it may happen again sometime in the future.
When you issued your statement on the integrity of institutions, is the investigation into the deposits part of what you had in mind?
Yeah. Because I always observed how things are done in the developed countries. There is always a constant flow of information coming out of the authorities even though they have not solved the problem yet.
They will update the public almost on a daily basis sometimes on what is happening with the investigation. I think that is a way of assuring the public that they can trust the authorities, that they can trust in the integrity of the institutions carrying out the investigation. I think that is very important.
Do you have a sense that corruption is becoming endemic in the country?
I think so, I believe much of it has to do with political funding. That’s why we strongly support the idea of regulating political funding.
I think political funding is a fact of life. It’s not a crime but it should be transparent, accountable and done in a way that does not raise suspicion.
The MACC Act specifically states that if a public official receives a donation, for instance, that donation is automatically considered gratification or a bribe unless it is proven otherwise. Does that not mean that the MACC can take action against political donations as well?
I’m not very familiar on the details of the MACC legislation. Even during my time, there are very strict rules for receiving donation, even for civil servants. Those days we have to declare our assets and we have to report if we receive any gifts. That still applies today.
On politicians, I’m sure MACC laws cover political donations. But how strong it is being implemented I’m not sure. From the recent developments it looks like MACC is genuinely making an effort to become professional. I believe they are trying to benchmark themselves against world standards. I know for example they look closely at how anti-corruption agencies in Hong Kong, Australia and Singapore work.
I’m quite sure that they too feel they should have more independence and that they should not be subject to ministerial directives. They have not said so publicly, but that’s because they are government officers and cannot talk about things that are political decisions.
But I am sure they feel they can operate more effectively if they are given more independence.
Would you support the view that the MACC should be made a constitutional agency as opposed to a statutory agency now so that it may provide a more effective check-and-balance mechanism?
The whole saga of the transfer of the two MACC officers recently clearly shows that the two officers are subject to the Public Services Department’s disciplinary actions.
So the proposal is that the MACC should be an autonomous body where they exercise their own disciplinary action. For example like the Securities Commission and Bank Negara – they take their own disciplinary action against their staff. MACC should be like that. That is a good suggestion.
And of course they should be allowed to develop their own career path for their officers. Even though they are a closed department, this should not prevent them from being promoted to the higher grades because if there are constraints in their promotions they get demoralised.
So although given autonomy that turns them into a closed department, that should not prevent their officers from being properly rewarded.
So you are also talking about the advancements in remunerations in terms of rewards.
Yes, of course while they adhere to the same salary grades as the government, there should be avenue for this sort of advancement.
For example Securities Commission pays their staff well. They don’t need to be transferred to other parts of the government to be promoted. They can earn salaries comparable to the private sector.
I think that should be the (case with MACC). Because MACC should have good accountants, good lawyers, good prosecutors, and in fact in our statement we have asked that MACC should be given prosecutorial powers and should not be dependent on the attorney-general to prosecute. That means they both investigate and prosecute. And they should be self-governing.
What about the abrupt change in the attorney-general? Do you feel there is such a concentration of power in the attorney-general whether to prosecute or not?
There should be a system of check and balance. I always say that in any country, prime ministers can come and go. The cabinet ministers can come and go. But the institutions must remain intact.
We have seen that in Japan and Italy (where top leadership changes frequently). How many prime ministers has Italy had since World War II? But the countries go on. Every two or three years they change the prime minister. But that does not affect the running of the country because the institutions are strong.
That should be the way in Malaysia and that is also the intention in our Constitution where there is a clear separation of powers between the legislative arm of government, the judiciary, the executive and the civil administration.
This principle of separation of powers is extremely important because as you can see what has happened in other countries, people at the top can make mistakes from time to time. They are human beings, not angels, and they do make mistakes. So if the institutions are strong then there would be accountability.
Accountability is the basic issue. The role of the institutions is to make the leaders and administrators accountable for their actions. As I said, you can’t rule out the possibility that mistakes will happen from time to time. The question is how we deal with the mistakes.
Did the manner of the removal of the attorney-general constitute a constitutional crisis?
If you look at the Constitution, there is one section about attorney-general. This is a constitutional appointment. His removal must be properly handled because otherwise it gives rise to a lot of constitutional issues.
That (the removal) has not been properly handled, as were the transfer of two MACC officers and the allegations against Bank Negara. These are the things that worry people when they talk about integrity of institutions.
Is there an absence of check and balance in the country?
I think it is very clear that what happened with the attorney-general and Bank Negara raises the issue of check and balance. Because sometimes perception is as important as the facts.
Of course if you look at the facts, there are checks and balances as provided in the Constitution but the perception is that those provisions are not being observed. And when incidents like those involving the MACC and attorney-general and Bank Negara happen, there is the perception that the system of check and balance is breaking down.
So that is the most important thing for the business community and foreign investors. They feel more comfortable when the institutional framework is intact.
In terms of freedom of expression, where are we now compared to, say, the point of independence? Because of the communist insurgency the restrictive laws were there before the independence itself but many of them were not repealed for a long time, such as the Internal Security Act. There are also periods where we seem to move towards liberation, then regress. So where are we now and do we need so many restrictions on our freedom to express ourselves?
A vibrant democracy requires freedom of expression. From what I see myself, when Pak Lah (Abdullah Ahmad Badawi) came into power, he was very liberal. He allowed greater freedom of expression. So much so he was being attacked left and right for being too liberal.
And of course there are groups which took advantage of his liberal policies. They became extremists. But that is not something we should be alarmed about. Okay, there are extremists in the country, but there are also opportunities for moderates, liberals, non-extremists to speak up their mind.
What worries me is when the authorities allow space to the extremists and then put on the brakes for the moderates and the liberals, saying that by speaking about human rights, protecting women, free and fair elections, they are being influenced by foreign ideology, anti-Islamic ideology.
That is what I meant earlier that there is that shift, a new trend in the last few years which made G25 feel uneasy and which was why we issued the first statement (in December 2014).
And then with this extremism came groups which want to use religion as a tool for promoting the idea for racial supremacy. That is not right. I think the worry is that the there is an imbalance in the application of the law.
All groups who make statements that are seditious, that are adversely affecting national security, must be made accountable to the law. But there should not be this concept that those who are in favour of democracy and so on are anti-national, disloyal to the sultans and all of that. That is also not right.
In terms of degrees of freedom, is there more now than the point of independence or less?
I would say there is more now because of social media. I remember during those days, 50-60 years ago, you only had two or three newspapers. And the front page news is always about the announcements from the top leaders.
But today is different because of social media. The present generation is able to compare and contrast. And also because they are able to see how society behaves in other countries, in that respect they are more vocal, they express themselves more openly today than in the past.
Is there a hardening of stances these days? Just before the last general elections the Internal Security Act was removed but in its place the anti-terrorism Act came in. Sections of the Penal Code were amended and its new Section 124B is now popularly and liberally used against those ostensibly hindering parliamentary democracy. It’s almost as if certain laws are being used to restrict legitimate expression of ideas and thoughts, almost like we are going back to an older era. Countries like Thailand and the Philippines seem to have more freedom. In Indonesia, for instance, newspapers do not need licences.
I was surprised that in Jakarta, their press is so free. I think Malaysia has regressed in that respect which is not good for democracy. We should restore the basic freedoms and definitely everybody will agree that those who exceed the limits of free speech will have to be made accountable, that goes without saying.
And the test should be whether the speech or statement affect race relations, affect national security. If there is clear evidence that there is intention to cause problems, then definitely the law should apply.
So in that sense, when you said we have more freedom today, on the balance of things is it because technology and social media have given us that avenue in spite of everything else that has happened?
As you say, the technology has given us that freedom. How much can authorities do to curb the freedom? In practice it is almost impossible. And if you put too many restrictions, things will go underground which is worse.
Better to have it in the open, then authorities can make decisions on them. I mean it is not difficult to make a judgment whether a particular statement is seditious or dangerous for national security.
In the next article, Mohd Sheriff speaks to KINIBIZ on Malaysia’s education system as well as the role it plays in racial unity.
Link to original article on Kinibiz
This is part 3 of 5