Published: Tuesday August 18, 2015 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Tuesday August 18, 2015 MYT 7:05:27 AM

Protect the public institutions

MALAYSIA’S public institutions – including the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC), the MACC and Bank Negara – have been in the news a lot lately and not for good reasons.

This is not a column on 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB).

Coverage on it is already saturated and I have little to add.

But I will say this though: honesty is always the best policy.

What I am more concerned about is the cavalier attitude that some members of the Malaysian public have regarded our public institutions with.

There seems to be little understanding or appreciation for institutional integrity.

To me, this simply means the need for public institutions like the AGC, MACC and Bank Negara to be independent.

“Independent” in turn means that they should be allowed to do their work without fear or favour – including and especially – when the rich or powerful are involved.

However, many seem to think that these bodies only serve at the pleasure of political expedience.

There’s a tempting logic here: if you’re in charge of a government, why shouldn’t you be able to hire and fire people at will?

But this is a fundamental misunderstanding of what public bodies and institutions are.

Make no mistake: they should support as much as possible the agenda of the government of the day.

“Sabotage” should not be tolerated.

There’s nothing as pernicious as so-called “technocrats” with political agendas or vendettas.

Politicians must not be at the mercy of civil servants and vice-versa.

But public bodies are not and should not be rubber stamps.

Independent institutions play a vital role in a democracy. They serve as a check and balance, minimising abuse of power and administrative malfeasance.

It is natural for everyone to seek to further their interests: political, economic and social.

But someone must be the referee, to arbitrate between the various groups, preventing both the tyranny of the majority and minority.

Their job, to put it simply, is to tell everyone – including politicians, civil society and the public – what they need and not want to hear, especially for crucial issues like the management of the economy and communal relations.

One cannot exaggerate the importance of having such neutral arbitrators.

They are particularly needed in a multi-racial, multi-religious society like ours, where what constitutes the “national interest” is so hard to define.

Will this sometimes make governing slowly, messy and cumbersome?

Perhaps. But that is what being a democracy is and, as Churchill said, it’s the worst form of governance, except for all those other forms that have been tried.

And let’s be honest with ourselves: foreign investors are not going to flock to countries with no rule of law and legal certainty.

Malaysians must demand that our leaders respect institutional integrity at all levels, from the lowest functionary to the highest officers of the state.

But bringing this about will require us to be vocal and courageous.

Look at the great outrage with which our neighbours in Indonesia have constantly met repeated attempts over the years to weaken the republic’s Corruption Eradication Commission (KPK), including the arrests of its senior members.

The moral high ground – and one suspects, history’s approbation – is clearly with the KPK and Indonesian public in that case.

What Indonesians seem to understand but Malaysians don’t, is that public institutions need to be defended by the public.

I said earlier on that it is often hard to define what Malaysia’s national interests is.

I stand by that, but I would also argue that it is clearly not the same thing as political expediency.

Politicians come and go.

But there is no surer way to destroy people’s faith in democracy by making it seem as if no public institution is safe, that everything must conform to the wills of the high and mighty.

One must hence welcome the decision to reverse the earlier, sudden transfer of the two senior MACC officers.

We can only hope that the Government will continue to listen to the people and that they will go about the next couple of months with wisdom and discretion.

The public too, I repeat, must be willing to keep a watchful eye and stand up for what is right.

This is a matter far beyond our political allegiances.

The price of freedom, after all, is eternal vigilance.

> Karim Raslan is a regional columnist and commentator. The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.

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Protect the public institutions

18 August 2015

Independent institutions play a vital role in a democracy as they serve as a check and balance, minimising abuse of power and administrative malfeasance.


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