The road ahead for Ombudsman Malaysia

Last month, Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad announced plans to establish an Ombudsman Malaysia.

An Ombudsman is an independent, impartial and free body which examines citizens’ complaints usually associated with unfair and unjust treatment by the government. Often described as a “government overseer”, it is a legislative commissioner for investigating bureaucratic abuse.

The staff in the Ombudsman are supposed to be impartial as they are arbiters between the government and individual citizens.

Complaints and grievances of government maladministration, injustice and negligence should be addressed by the Ombudsman. However, amid the recent news about setting it up, a nagging thought keeps running through my mind: “An outlier must be prepared to face the dilemma of being a lonely voice in society.”

How is this relevant to Mahathir’s call to transform the Public Complaints Bureau into the Ombudsman Malaysia? Let me explain.

I recall that in the late 1960s, a seminal study on the sociology of corruption in Southeast Asian societies was published. World-renowned intellectual Syed Hussein Alatas, the Malaysian who wrote the piece, was that lonely voice.

Almost 60 years have gone by. We have still not implemented the Ombudsman scheme, despite the metastatic transformation of corruption in our nation.

Between the late 60s and the present, sporadic references were made to this, but at best it was received as mere lip service.

Ungku Aziz, Lim Kit Siang, MD Salleh Yaapar and a few more prominent individuals and institutes have referred to the establishment of an Ombudsman.

I sincerely hope, though, that the prime minister will not be an outlier in his current quest to introduce this paradigmatic shift in our socio-political process.

Earlier this month, in a London interview, Mahathir responded to a question about corruption. He alluded to the fact that there are different levels of corruption in every society, saying the level had reached “dangerous heights” during Malaysia’s previous administration.

Professor Alatas wrote about this in the 1960s when he outlined three stages of corruption in societies: restricted, rampant and destructive.

My guess is, Mahathir is quite aware that Malaysia has already reached the end of stage two.

It is definitely time to revisit the thoughts of Syed Hussein Alatas, and Mahathir’s Ombudsman Malaysia move is in the right (and only) direction. However, I hope history will not repeat itself.

In 1989, a special Cabinet committee headed by then-deputy prime minister Anwar Ibrahim was set up with the sole purpose of introducing an Ombudsman system. Alatas, the then vice-chancellor of Universiti Malaya, was commissioned to submit a special report on it.

He recommended the appointment of all Ombudsman who have the powers to receive and investigate public complaints against government maladministration and negligence.

In 1993, Lim Kit Siang called on the Cabinet to revive this idea. His statement is filed under “Ombudsman, Parliament”. He said in order for all Ombudsman to be effective, they should be independent of the government and answerable only to Parliament.

Now, in 2018, we seem closer to realising our hope for an Ombudsman. However, the practical difficulties of ridding our society of corruption and bureaucratic abuse are enormous.

This includes potential mishandling and mismanagement after the Ombudsman scheme is put in place.

I would like to touch on possible scenarios that could emerge between the Ombudsman and Ombudsman “watchers”. The implication here is that even the Ombudsman, in the beginning, should be monitored by the public because the new Malaysia is still groping through a myriad of social, political and economic problems left over from the previous regime.

There are eight areas on which we should focus.

First, the staff of Ombudsman Malaysia should be professional and of high quality. They should know about matters being investigated, be analytically equipped to grasp the essence of the problem and be intelligent enough to accept a complaint “at face value”. If not, complaints may be easily dismissed, often due to ignorance.

Essentially, the Ombudsman staff should be well-informed of issues in order to be able to provide the appropriate information to complainants on the identity of advisers associated with specific cases.

Second, if there are multiple Ombudsman staff involved in a complaint, the process towards a solution could become highly bureaucratic, inefficient and impersonal. A single-case officer should deal with a case from beginning to end.

Third, the public must be made confident that the Ombudsman process is not a smoke screen. The process is not akin to a court case, for instance, so the danger is that secrecy and opacity may set in.

Fourth, a survey of grievances made to the Ombudsman should be published annually to allow for year-to-year comparisons. This way, the public can monitor the successes and failures concerning their specific complaints.

Fifth, the Ombudsman process should not be seen as one-sided, with the public not being made privy to discussions between the Ombudsman and the government bodies being investigated. Furthermore, reports should not be shared with the body being investigated prior to sharing it with the complainant.

Sixth, the Ombudsman should not be perceived as being “under pressure” or as gate-keepers. The potential of the Ombudsman becoming “window dressing” rather than a serious attempt to investigate issues is a phenomenon with which the Malaysian public is very familiar.

Seventh, there should be sufficient interaction between the Ombudsman and the public such as participation in reform activities led by the Ombudsman, to dispel suspicions regarding its independence.

Eighth, and to my mind, the most fundamental requirement is that the Ombudsman must be made up of individuals of high moral integrity who have a powerful anti-corruption mentality. They should not be greedy. Because these individuals themselves are not corrupt or dishonest, it is likely they will not tolerate corruption or other forms of abuse.

Once Ombudsman Malaysia is established, it is my hope that the process of profound moral awakening will start. This is urgently needed in our society.

This moral awakening has to be moved by an ideal of excellence and a sense of shame.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.