For democracy’s sake, take leave when charged in court

Malaysian politicians do not seem to understand what democracy and the rule of law mean – they think that they are still in a feudal fiefdom where there is an expectation of privilege of office whatever the circumstances.

Paul Yong Choo Kiong, who has been charged at the Ipoh Sessions Court for rape on Friday, has refused to go on leave pending the disposal of his court case, arguing that he will continue carrying out his responsibilities as Perak executive councillor despite being advised to.

“Why should I take leave? I did not do anything. I have not been convicted. I am still a state exco and I will serve the people who have given me the mandate,” he said.

Yong has been charged under Section 376 of the Penal Code, which carries up to 20 years’ imprisonment and whipping upon conviction.

Perak Menteri Besar Ahmad Faizal Azumu has also suggested that Yong take leave from his official responsibilities that include attending meetings involving decision-making but the DAP organising secretary, Loke Siew Fook, has insisted that any decision on the matter should come from the party’s Central Executive Committee (CEC).

Before we discuss the important principles of democracy and the standard operating procedures we expect of politicians in “New Malaysia”, let us review the principle of Cabinet responsibility.

Now, if the Perak menteri besar has no authority to ask one of his exco members to take leave temporarily, does it mean that the prime minister has no authority in a coalition government to ask one of his federal ministers to do likewise if that minister has been charged in a court for a crime?

Can that federal minister also say, “No, the prime minister has no authority to ask me to take leave, only the Central Executive Committee of my party has that right?”

Clearly, this makes the coalition government look absurd and it also makes a mockery of the concept of leadership and accountability in any administration.

Unfortunate lack of leadership by example

Older Malaysians will still remember that when Dr Mahathir Mohamad first became prime minister in 1981, his slogan for his administration was “Leadership by Example”.

Unfortunately, within DAP, leaders like Yong have the example of the secretary-general of his party, Lim Guan Eng, to go by.

When Lim, as Penang chief minister, faced a corruption charge involving the conversion of land use from agricultural to residential and the purchase of a plot of land and bungalow at below market value, he refused to take leave from his chief ministerial post.

The charge was that he had used his position as chief minister to gain gratification for himself and wife Betty Chew Gek Cheng by approving the application for conversion of agricultural land to a public housing zone in Balik Pulau to Magnificent Emblem Sdn Bhd.

He also faced a second charge of using his position to obtain a plot of land and bungalow at No. 25, Jalan Pinhorn, on July 28, 2015, from businesswoman Phang Li Koon for RM2.8 million, at well below its market value.

Today, it is not just Yong who can refer to Guan Eng’s corruption case as a precedent for hanging on to his post in government for, if Najib was still the prime minister today, he could likewise point to Lim’s example and refuse to take leave from office while his 1MDB case is being tried in the courts.

Individual ministerial responsibility

While there is collective ministerial responsibility by which members of the Cabinet must publicly support all governmental decisions made in Cabinet even if they do not privately agree with them, there is also individual ministerial responsibility whereby a Cabinet member bears the ultimate responsibility for the actions of his or her ministry.

The accountable minister is expected to bear the responsibility if he is ever charged with a crime and is expected to step aside while his or her case is being dealt with in the court, but the government of which the minister is part of, is not held to be answerable for that minister’s failure.

Stepping aside from office, while a minister is being charged, is a critical ethical decision for the government. It is also expected accountable democratic practice.

Taking leave from office while one’s case is on-going in the court is also one of the basic moral resources for individuals of integrity.

This option reinforces integrity, responsibility and accountability. In fact, ministers in office swear before the Sultan that they would live up to the obligation of the office.

‘New Malaysia expects high ethical standards

It is the responsibility of all public officials to maintain a high ethical standard in order to effectively and honestly serve the people. In fact, to ensure the maintenance of high ethical standards, some countries have created an Executive Ethics Commission to which the attorney- general serves as an adviser.

Typically, such a commission receives complaints, conducts administrative hearings, prepares and publishes guides regarding the ethics laws, issues subpoenas, and makes rulings and recommendations in disciplinary cases. Importantly, an Executive Ethics Commission also has jurisdiction over the employees and officers of the executive branch of the government.

Malaysia does not yet have in place an Ethics Commission. Nonetheless, government employees and elected officials have a responsibility to respect the rule of law, act ethically and conduct their work in an open manner.

Meanwhile, ministers are expected to step aside from office while they are being charged for a crime in the court. If they do not, they will be working under a cloud of uncertainty that is not in the interests of the people they serve.

Assuming they are ultimately convicted of the crime – this would mean that their actions and signed documents on behalf of the people during this period of doubt are sullied in the process. If on the other hand, they are vindicated by their innocence, it only adds to their reputation as politicians of integrity.

This is expected accountable democratic practice. We are no longer living under a feudal system of patronage in which one’s own party or party boss decides what actions should follow in a coalition government.

Taking leave of absence while a minister or exco member is being charged for a crime reinforces integrity, responsibility and accountability that we expect in “New Malaysia”.

Kua Kia Soong is the adviser to Suaram.

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