Latheefa’s MACC appointment, excellent choice but flawed process

The Coalition for Clean and Fair Elections (Bersih 2.0) welcomes the appointment of Latheefa Koya as the new chief commissioner of Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC). Over the years Latheefa has proven herself to be a highly principled, courageous and straight-talking human rights defender and lawyer. Such qualities are needed to helm MACC and deal with the scourge of corruption in this country.

Nonetheless, Bersih 2.0 is troubled by the process by which she was appointed as it highlights a structural weakness in our governance and makes abuses of power inevitable. By Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s own admission, he did not even consult his Cabinet, let alone Parliament, on the appointment of Latheefa as he did not want the opinions of his ministers to restrict his choice. He further added that he normally makes the decision himself because he doesn’t have to ask the Cabinet as to whom he approves.

While current laws allow the PM to advise the king to appoint whosoever he wants, such almost absolute power in the hands of the PM does not bode well for our parliamentary democracy system of government. Former PM Najib Razak used the same power to appoint his allies into key positions in his attempt to escape the scrutiny of the 1MDB scandal and cling on to power.

Pakatan Harapan (PH) came to power on the promise of wide-ranging institutional reforms so that there is a separation of powers that restores the dignity of Parliament and the independence of key institutions like MACC, EC, JAC, Suhakam, Span and GLICs.

Bersih 2.0 calls on the PH government to codify into law the independence of these institutions without delay, preferably at the next sitting of the Dewan Rakyat in July. If a two-thirds majority in the house is required to effect constitutional amendments, we call on the opposition members to lend bipartisan support so that institutional checks and balances can firmly be established.

Unless the appointment process is institutionalised, there is a risk that all the good appointments so far could be undone in a day if the next PM so wishes. As a country, we cannot hope for and depend on the good intentions and graces of the PM but we need strong and independent institutions and processes to hold the PM and all public officials accountable.

A sound appointment process would include a nomination committee which receives nominations from all stakeholders (including the public) and set up to shortlist qualified candidates. These should then be forwarded to a parliamentary select committee (PSC) who will look for a candidate who can command public confidence, then recommend the chosen candidate to the PM or even directly to the king.

While it may not be possible to undo key appointments that have already been installed, Bersih 2.0 urges the PM to respect the institution of the Parliament and allow the PSC on major public appointments to conduct a review of appointed commissioners, chief justice, IGP, director-generals and chairpersons of GLICs/GLCs. The reviews would ratify the PM’s appointment and gives greater recognition and some form of legitimacy to the appointees, especially for someone like Latheefa who has a political background. But if there are strong objections from the PSC and compelling reasons why a person should not be appointed, then the PM has to defend his decision.

Bersih 2.0 also calls on the PSC on major appointments to come out with clear scope of their mandate and process of vetting appointments. These should be made public and stakeholders consulted, especially civil society, before they are finalised.

Once again, Bersih 2.0 lauds the appointment of Latheefa but urges the PM to expedite the legal amendments necessary to institutionalise and democratise the process of major appointments, including the Election Commission in future, make key public institutions independent and empower them so that they can serve as effective checks and balances. If this can be achieved before Mahathir steps down, it will be one of his most important and enduring legacies to this nation.

Satukan Tenaga, Malaysia Baru!

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