Monday, January 30

Hands off, politicians 


IT is rare for the head of an institution mentioned in the Federal Constitution to explicitly criticise the interference of politicians – let alone a specific one – into the workings of that institution. Yet that is what happened in the last press conference by outgoing inspector general of police Tan Sri Hamid Bador last Friday (April 30). The top cop spoke out against the Home Minister making top appointments and managing daily tasks, saying that the minister’s responsibility as chairman of the Police Force Commission (SPP) has its limits, further suggesting that the minister be removed from the role altogether.

These remarks came just as the said minister confirmed that it was his voice in a leaked recording expressing support to promote an officer described as “our boy”, and even claiming a Ruler’s supposed preference for the same. These are not the usual main criteria when making senior appointments: competence, integrity, and professionalism should be. Separately, a question has emerged as to whether this change in IGP is even legal, given Section 15 of the Police Act 1967 which state, “No police officer may retire or resign from the Force during war or whilst a Proclamation of Emergency is in force.”

In any case, with these departing words, Tan Sri Hamid Bador has highlighted another area of our public life in which the role of politicians has expanded well beyond what was ever imagined by the founders of our country. The Federal Constitution was written with the intention that certain key institutions operate independently. The splitting of powers between executive, legislative, and judicial arms; between federal and state levels; and in regulating appointments to senior offices, the compositions of statutory bodies and commissions, and the demarcation of responsibilities were all thought through carefully to ensure that no one officeholder becomes too powerful.

Unfortunately, in Malaysia today, it is plain to see that so many institutions – whether specified in our laws or not – have been sullied by political interference. Apart from the police, over the years, allegations of real or attempted excessive interference in the appointment and even day-to-day duties of judges, the Attorney General, Central Bank Governor, and members of bodies like the Election Commission, Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, and others have become the norm. It has reached the point where it is an assumed expectation that any new Prime Minister would seek to fill all these positions to his own preferred candidates as soon as possible.

In the economic sphere, political interference is even more marked. The Institute for Democracy and Economic Affairs (Ideas) has published numerous papers on interventions through government-linked companies (GLCs), bodies like Felda and Mara, in public procurement, in numerous sectors including agriculture, and in direct resource allocations to states and politicians. Any area which requires regulatory approval is routinely seized as an opportunity for rent-seeking (and here especially, civil servants are involved), explaining opposition to attempts to remove such opportunities, whether through domestic reforms or initiatives like the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP).

All this has a spiralling corrosive effect on our society. Every time there is a change of government, corporates and even NGOs feel they have to seek the blessings of the new minister. And now that changes of government are possible, some business leaders ingratiate themselves with ambitious politicians on all sides in the hope that when they attain higher office, the long-established relationship will (literally) pay off.

Despite all this, one can still find people who genuinely believe that giving politicians even bigger roles in appointments and the economy to be a good thing. They argue that as elected representatives of the people, it is appropriate that they have such powers over the functioning of other institutions and in allocating public resources. But they ignore the fact that all parliamentarians are the representatives of the people, and have a role to play in checking the government.

A more fundamental point forgotten by these political and economic authoritarians is that our Federal Constitution itself possesses a superior legitimacy – one that sprang forth from consent, negotiation, approval from sovereign Rulers and continued affirmations by elected representatives.

Whether in law and order, the dispensing of justice, or the political, economic and social life of our society, the intent and spirit of the Federal Constitution must be restored. Alas, given where we are, the battle is in getting the very class that benefits from present distortions to reform against their own interests for the sake of the country. Although that might seem an impossible task, experience from other countries shows that it is possible for civil society to help maximise the available honesty and earnestness of politicians towards this goal.

Tunku Zain Al-Abidin is founding president of Ideas.