Alternative views: Institutional reforms in danger of becoming mere slogans

TheEdge Tue, Sep 19, 2023 12:30pm - 2 weeks View Original

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly on September 18, 2023 - September 24, 2023

Malaysia’s most progressive institutional reform in recent years can be said to be the passing of the Undi18 law, which lowered the voting age to 18 from 21 years old previously. Even Singapore, which is a global leader on many fronts, does not have this law.

It was unanimously passed in parliament in 2019. The prime mover for the law was Muar member of parliament Syed Saadiq Syed Abdul Rahman, who was the then Youth and Sports minister. Syed Saadiq wrote to all the MPs and actively worked with the then attorney-general (AG) Tan Sri Tommy Thomas to get the law drafted and passed in parliament.

Syed Saadiq would have had support from like-minded officials to make the constitutional change happen. But primarily, it was the political will of one MP that resulted in all members of the House of Representatives backing the amendment.

Another landmark constitutional amendment is the Anti-Hopping Law, which came into effect in July 2022, before the 15th general election (GE15). The then prime minister Datuk Seri Ismail Sabri Yaakob had the political resolve to see it through because he did not want another period of political instability similar to that after the infamous “Sheraton Move” of February 2020.

This amendment to the constitution was another bill that had the unanimous support of all members present in parliament on the day it was passed.

The passing of these two laws reaffirms the fact that institutional reforms can happen. It requires political will and the resolve of the prime minister, together with at least one MP who is a minister who will take it to parliament and the AG.

In the case of Undi18, Syed Saadiq was its prime mover. He had the support of the then prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and was also well supported by Thomas. As for the anti-hopping law, Ismail, who was confident of winning GE15, wanted such a law before the polls.

The opposition led by Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim also wanted the law to be passed before the next GE. Hence, it became a reality.

Anwar, who is now the prime minister, has anchored his government on institutional reforms and good governance.

However, his reform and governance agenda took a hard knock after the AG’s prosecution team decided to discontinue the corruption cases against his deputy, Datuk Seri Ahmad Zahid Hamidi.

It has reignited calls for the separation of powers that are concentrated in the office of the AG. The reform of the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) is not a new idea and has been talked about since at least the 2013 general election.

The reform sought is to separate the duties of the AG as the adviser to the government from the responsibilities of the public prosecutor, both of which are currently in the AG’s hands. It is certainly too much power given to one individual.

The crux of the reform is for the AG to only advise and look into matters related to the government while the powers of prosecution are to be left to a new Department of Prosecution. Another aspect of the reform is to have the head of the Department of Prosecution report to parliament and not the prime minister to ensure security of the official’s tenure.

This would prevent a repeat of the October 2015 incident when the then prime minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak sacked the then AG, Tan Sri Abdul Gani Patail, who was preparing charges against Najib in relation to the SRC International case.

Following Ahmad Zahid’s recent discharge not amounting to an acquittal (DNAA), Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department for Law and Institutional Reform Datuk Azalina Othman announced last week the setting up of two task forces to expedite the reforms of the AGC.

One task force is to prepare an interim report within a year to be presented to the cabinet for deliberation.

Generally, when there are difficult decisions to be made — be it in the public or private sector — a quick way to defuse the situation is to form a committee or task force. And a sure way of putting the matter to rest is to not give the committee or task force a deadline.

In this instance, Azalina has given the task force a year to come up with the report. But isn’t one year too long a period for the formulation of the framework on the reforms, especially when some work on the reforms in the AGC had already been done during Thomas’ tenure?

In his memoir, Thomas said he had informed Mahathir, the then prime minister, about the reforms of the AGC. He had also stated that after some initial reluctance, the majority of the 1,200 senior officers at the AGC were agreeable to the separation of powers following a “referendum” among them.

Obviously, some work has already been carried out. In fact, reforms in the AGC were a priority of the Anwar government. Yet only now, after 10 months in office, are task forces being set up.

Which brings us to question: Is there political will to see through the reforms in the AGC?

Getting a two-thirds majority in parliament should not be a problem as many MPs want to see the changes go through. Syed Saadiq, who is now in the opposition bloc, will certainly not oppose it as his priorities are reforms and accountability.

It is not only the reforms in the AGC that need political will. There are many others that are pending and should be implemented quickly.

The security of tenure of the chief commissioner of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) and the Inspector General of Police (IGP) are some examples.

There are calls for the MACC to be placed under the purview of parliament so that the chief commissioner will not be answerable to the prime minister. But there is another view that doing this will further politicise the commission as major cases will be subject to debate by MPs even before investigations can be concluded.

One solution is for the sacking of the MACC head and IGP to be determined by a panel of their peers, just like the provisions allowed for the chief justice’s post. This is to prevent the arbitrary sacking of the chief commissioner and IGP by the prime minister.

Other key reforms include limiting the tenure of the prime minister to two terms and the Political Funding Bill.

Under Dr Mahathir’s leadership, the law to limit the tenure of the prime minister was tabled for first reading in December 2019. But it was withdrawn in August 2020 when Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin was prime minister.

As for the proposed Political Funding Act, nothing much has been said about it. The law on political funding will facilitate investigations into the misuse of money in politics.

There are so many other reforms, in areas from education to freedom of speech, that are pending. They involve amendments to the constitution, which requires the support of two-thirds of parliament.

Some matters would be difficult to pass in parliament. However, by and large, many of the crucial institutional reforms have been talked about and a fair amount of work done.

Why has there been so little progress thus far?

Take the bill to limit the term of the prime minister. It was tabled during Pakatan Harapan’s tenure in 2019. All it needs is the political will to retable it in parliament.

As for the reforms in the AGC, one year to come up with the report seems too long as many things can change within that period.

Anwar continues to draw the crowds because of his reform and governance agenda. Governance is a track record that he must build on during his administration’s tenure.

But institutional reforms can be done quickly, especially for laws where work had already been done previously but stopped abruptly.

Institutional reforms, if delayed, can be construed as mere political sloganeering, which would not bode well for the current administration.

M Shanmugam is a contributing editor at The Edge

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