LATHEEFA Koya was the last person I spoke to before I was arrested (but never charged) as part of an Official Secrets Act investigation back in 2007.
She was of great help to me then, and I remain grateful to her and to the many others who stood in solidarity with me.
When it was all over and done, I remember having this feeling like she had patted me on the back, proud of my mini baptism of fire as an activist of sorts.
Needless to say, she had trod that path long before me, and I looked up to her as a senior.
That was 12 years ago, and since that time, we’ve come some ways. I think in 2012 we were still friendly, but during the time of the Kajang Move in 2014, we found ourselves on opposing political sides, and I learned what it was like to be on the receiving end of a particular type of … criticism, is perhaps the word I’d use here and now.
It took me a while to find, but those criticisms are still online.
I state all this in some attempt to put cards on the table. Someone with absolutely no connection or past with Latheefa might be seen to offer more objective, impartial views.
That said, I will do my best, and hope for the writing to speak for itself.
This article will try to discuss the ideal criteria for an MACC chief commissioner, the question of how baggage may affect questions of impartiality, and the larger political context.
Let us begin by asking what some of the desirable characteristics of an MACC chief might be.
I will list out a few that come to mind, and presumptuously assign how I personally think Latheefa scores on these characteristics. No one is under any obligation to take my humble assessment with any seriousness.
I would say the characteristics of a good MACC commissioner should include: fearlessness (10/10), dedication to justice (9/10), relevant experience (5/10), being (almost universally) seen as impartial (2/10), and being the epitome of cool-headed professionalism (2/10).
The one thing I think all can agree on is that Latheefa is fearless. She speaks her mind, and with a very sharp tongue at that.
“The one thing” here may be meant quite literally. How one feels about a sharp tongue tends to depend on whether or not it is uttering things you agree with or not.
If it is, then you praise the speaker as a “straight talker”. If it isn’t, then you criticise the speaker as a “hatchet man” (or woman) or “attack dog”.
The latter term is particularly impolite, but I imagine Latheefa has been called all three of the above and more. Not that it has ever deterred her, which again, is why all can agree that she is fearless.
I’m not sure there’s very much else everyone else agrees on.
These last few days have demonstrated quite clearly how polarising a figure Latheefa is. There are some who love her, and some who hate her. It might not be a stretch to say that the latter consists more of Pakatan Harapan supporters, rather than Barisan Nasional ones.
Latheefa has also had an undisputed record of being dedicated to activism. She has spoken out strongly on cases of deaths in detention, statelessness, refugee welfare, and other human rights abuses.
Not everyone in politics or government necessarily needs to have a cool head. It would be nice, but realistically, we live in an age of sensational gravity, and we all know that slamming tables and shouting is what gains attention.
That’s fair enough, for politics at least.
The MACC chief commissioner is however a civil servant – and furthermore, one who is tasked with investigating other civil servants as well as politicians.
Politicians in particular are by definition, partisan. There are many different parties, and many different camps within each party.
Suaram (Suara Rakyat Malaysia) adviser Dr Kua Kia Soong wrote: "Latheefa no doubt has a range of valuable skills, experience and qualities. However, her political independence is sadly not one of them.
“In the public eye, Latheefa has for many years been known as a PKR stalwart and leader who makes political statements not only pertaining to other political parties but also to factions within PKR itself.”
A background piece in The Star observed how Latheefa had fierce words for prime minister-in-waiting Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, Deputy Prime Minister Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail, and Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Seri Dr Mujahid Yusof.
I believe she had some choice words for Deputy Women, Family and Community Development Minister Hannah Yeoh as well last year.
In 2017 meanwhile, Latheefa engaged in a very public spat with PKR vice-president Rafizi Ramli, once again over the Kajang Move.
The Star columnist Joceline Tan was one of the few who spoke directly to the heart of the matter: “Latheefa’s past involvement in PKR politics also raises concerns about her independence.
“She was closely associated with what the PKR crowd called the ‘Azmin cartel’ during the PKR election. She was very critical of Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim and Datuk Seri Dr Wan Azizah Wan Ismail for their involvement in the polls and had launched broadsides against them.
“There is little doubt she will be firing on all cylinders against Barisan Nasional wrong-doers but can she be professional if there is a report against, say, Datuk Seri Azmin Ali?
“Politicians have been among the biggest crooks in the country and PAS vice-president Datuk Iskandar Samad put it in a nutshell when he said that an agency that will be investigating politicians should not be led by a politician.
Latheefa’s stormy ties with Anwar have naturally led to speculation that she is there to make things difficult for the prime minister-in-waiting.”
It would be remiss of me or anyone else to automatically assume or accuse Latheefa of bias or prejudice of any sort.
As someone who works in public perception however, the more I thought about it, the more impossible things seem to be for her.
Let’s just imagine hypothetically that the MACC opens a file on Anwar, or someone closely linked to him.
Whether or not Anwar is guilty, with Latheefa heading the MACC, the credibility of the investigation would already be compromised, as many will accuse the investigation of being politically motivated.
How can they not, given Latheefa’s history with Anwar?
In the same way, if there is even any whiff of rumour associating Azmin (incidentally, did anyone take a close look at his asset declaration?) or his associates with corruption, and there is no MACC investigation – or even if there is an investigation which exonerates them – the MACC will again be accused of bias, regardless of actual guilt or innocence.
Thus, there should ideally be no reason whatsoever for any reasonable person to question the partiality or the integrity of the MACC chief commissioner, based on his or her past.
In Latheefa’s case, there seems to be way too much ammunition to draw upon to do just that. Resigning one’s party membership will not make all this baggage disappear overnight.
While she has openly questioned mine in the past, I (believe it or not) don’t feel that Latheefa’s past automatically or conclusively compromises her present integrity – most of us are really in no position whatsoever to ascertain that, one way or another.
I think it’s fair to say however, at a public perception level, there is little to no way that her history and past of crossing swords with all sorts of people in the political arena is an asset rather than a liability – not just to her, but to the MACC and the government as a whole.
Ultimately, the appointment raises more questions than it answers.
The enduring elephant in the room of Malaysian politics is whether or not Anwar will finally succeed Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad as Prime Minister.
As Joceline Tan and others have observed multiple times over, the nexus of Azmin and Tun Daim Zainuddin seem to be the ones most interested in preventing this from happening.
This conflict becomes exceedingly obvious in the wake of how PKR leaders have responded to Latheefa’s appointment predictably in direct proportion to where they stand on the Azmin vs Anwar spectrum.
Azmin himself was very supportive of the appointment, as were associates like Zuraida Kamaruddin and Shamsul Iskandar; whereas more Anwar-aligned leaders like William Leong, Fahmi Fadzil, Nik Nazmi Nik Ahmad and Anwar himself all reacted far more cautiously.
Indeed, despite his repeated assurances that Anwar will succeed him, this is arguably Dr Mahathir’s biggest show of support for the Azmin-Daim vision. Up till now, there seemed to be precious little to suggest that Dr Mahathir may renege on his word.
After all, why Latheefa? If you wanted an external expert on corruption, there is C4’s Cynthia Gabriel or Fadiah Nadwa Fikri (also a lawyer with extensive human rights credentials and qualifications), human rights lawyer Edmund Bon, Rafizi, Professor Terence Gomez, and so on.
If you just wanted a fierce firebrand with a sharp tongue, you could just as well have appointed Hishamuddin Rais or Ibrahim Ali for that matter.
If you wanted to give Latheefa a role in government, fair enough as well. She is talented and qualified, with a lot of relevant experience in certain fields. There is the upcoming IPCMC (Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission), or various commissions and taskforces related to stateless people, refugees and so on.
Civil society seems polarised on this issue as well. Many know Latheefa personally and are thrilled at the appointment.
Others were more circumspect. After all, if a prominent Umno lawyer or activist – or someone with a ‘passion’ for a particular camp within Umno like Raja Petra Kamaruddin – was appointed to this post under Datuk Seri Najib Razak administration, what would civil society’s reaction have been?
The timing of the announcement on the very eve of Hari Raya, just as everyone was getting in the mood to dig into lemang and rendang, also raised eyebrows. Was this to minimise debate and polemics?
Given all these factors, surely the intense speculation and debate that has ensued is understandable. Will it rage on, and take the focus away from the primary business of fighting corruption?
I’m sure Latheefa doesn’t think so, and she has said as such, on her first day on the job. Good for her.
As for the rest of us, there are two main possibilities. The first is that Dr Mahathir will backtrack, the same way he did about becoming Education Minister, and about Icerd (the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination) and about the Rome Statute on the International Criminal Court.
This seems relatively unlikely. The second possibility, that Latheefa will carry on, seems much more likely.
In that case, the fairest thing to do for now is to let her work speak for itself. Time will tell.
As with all government leaders, we should assess their work fairly and objectively. As with any incoming MACC chief commissioner, close attention must be paid to see whether there is a new pattern as to who is investigated and who is not.
I am generally wary of looking like I am telling any woman – especially one as fierce and accomplished as Latheefa, whom we can proudly point to as Malaysia’s first woman MACC chief commissioner – how they should speak; in this particular context, there is the ever so small chance that it may be appropriate to say that given her new, public post, it may be wise to go easy on the political and partisan public tongue lashings for which she has previously been famous.
The public credibility of her work henceforth may depend (at least in part) on it.
NATHANIEL TAN is director of media and communications at Emir Research, a think tank focused on data-driven policy research, centred on principles of Engagement, Moderation, Innovation and Rigour.