I HAVE written enthusiastically about Dewan Rakyat Speaker Datuk Mohamad Ariff Yusof, Election Commission Chairman Azhar Harun, Chief Justice Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat, Attorney General Tommy Thomas, and Inspector General of Police Dato’ Seri Hamid Bador as they set out to do these important jobs. Corporate hats have brought positive appraisals of Bank Negara Governor Datuk Nor Shamsiah and other new faces at statutory bodies and government linked companies.
I am less familiar with Latheefa Koya, but colleagues in civil society tell me that I ought to be equally enthused by her appointment as chief commissioner of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission. A healthy democracy requires strong institutions that operate according to their constitutional or statutory remits (while acknowledging that from time to time, these remits should be evaluated). Furthermore, earnest officeholders should be given the benefit of the doubt and allowed to prove themselves in the job. So I wish her well.
However, Latheefa’s appointment unleashed deep divisions among politicians and civil society, to a greater extent than the previous appointments mentioned, for two main reasons.
First is a perception of the manifesto being broken. According to Promise 14, the MACC will be upgraded to “a Commission that is recognised in our Federal Constitution … will report directly to Parliament, rather than to the Prime Minister. The number of MACC commissioners will be increased and there will be a quota for civil society … one will become chairman. Appointment of these commissioners must be validated by Parliament”. Promise 16 says, “Key national positions such as appointments [to the MACC]must be approved by a suitable parliamentary committee.”
Detractors of the appointment insist these promises should apply, whereas supporters point out that these promises (and commensurate legal mechanisms) should be delivered over the course of the five years. Some even dismiss the proposed parliamentary procedure as a potential obstacle to the more important job of eradicating corruption. Those in support also observe that the PM has a strong democratic mandate, and should be given leeway to appoint people in accordance with the law, regardless of what political commitments were previously made.
Second, Latheefa is closer to party politics than the other individuals, having previously served in a senior position within her party, and resigning her membership just before taking up the new post. A perception persists of her alignment to a particular faction within the party. The more vociferous critics argue that she should not have accepted the post, and should now resign.
These factors could have been alleviated if there was a more consultative process in her appointment. If there was greater scrutiny, detractors might be convinced that political associations would not impede her job.
For any senior role, it is not just the identity, qualifications, and experiences of the individual, but also the process of appointment that lends confidence and credibility to the office. The writers of our Constitution took great care to ensure that appropriate processes were established for key national posts. For example, the Chief Justice “shall be appointed by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong, acting on the advice of the Prime Minister, after consulting the Conference of Rulers”. And the Constitution creates the Police Force Commission, which describes how appointments, promotions, and transfers are to be made.
The writers of the government’s manifesto recognised that some offices needed stronger processes, and that is why commitments were made to upgrade them. It is a legitimate expectation that these commitments should be fulfilled. For while it is true that the Prime Minister has a strong mandate, so do individual members of parliament. Parliament, its Select Committees and their envisaged roles are legitimate (more so because they are a product of manifesto commitments).
Discontent and disagreement are part and parcel of a healthy democracy. And one of the hallmarks of maturity is the executive’s ability to face such disagreement and win sceptics over by making right choices. Senior appointments ought to reflect this principle.
It is possible for the executive to achieve their desired candidate by going through more consultative processes. In doing so, that individual will enjoy a stronger legitimacy and confidence that will enable better performance that benefits everyone.
If we make excuses to ignore rigorous processes because we happen to like the individual, then next time, when we might not like the individual, it is us who will be ignored.
In any case, a test of performance has come quickly (no pun intended) with the dissemination of a sex video and an apparent confession by a participant that the other participant is a corrupt federal minister. Both the participant and the minister have requested that the MACC take action.
Everyone – including those who didn’t get the video – will be watching.
Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is founding president of Ideas.