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Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohammad’s sudden and surprise appointment of Latheefa Koya, a much respected human rights lawyer, to the critical post of anti-corruption chief last week has generated much controversy. What should have been cause for celebration is now turning into yet another divisive issue, particularly in her former party, Parti Keadilan Rakyat (PKR).

Missing the point 

Mahathir’s supporters, of course, stress the legality of the prime minister’s actions. Law Minister Liew Vui Keong, for example, rightly pointed out that under the MACC act, the prime minister is not obliged to refer to either the cabinet or parliament when appointing the MACC chief.  Deputy Minister Hanipa Maidin noted that “the post of prime minister comes with certain privileges,” one of which is the appointment of key public officials. Public Works Minister Baru Bian for his part opined that the appointment was done “in a lawful and proper manner.”

Others have zeroed in on Latheefa’s suitability for the post, with some praising her as the “right choice” and others wondering if she is far too political for the job. Given the bitter divisions within PKR, no one is surprised that her appointment has also ratcheted up tensions between supporters of PKR president Anwar Ibrahim and deputy president Azmin Ali.

The real issue, however, is not about the prime minister’s constitutional prerogatives (of course, he has the right) or even Latheefa’s credentials (of course, she’s a great choice) but about the prime minister’s commitment to the reform agenda. It is an issue that needs to be viewed within the context of the demand for democratic reform, accountability and transparency that found expression in the May 9th elections and which brought Mahathir back to power at the head of the Pakatan Harapan coalition.

Context is important

During the last years of UMNO-BN rule, we saw how the untrammelled power of the executive to hire and fire key officials was shamefully abused to shield then prime minister Najib Tun Razak from investigation and quite possibly arrest over the 1MDB scandal. There was widespread revulsion and outrage when Najib removed the Attorney-General and other senior officials and replaced them with more pliant officials who quickly absolved him of all wrongdoing.

That shameful episode gave birth to a renewed determination to limit the power of the executive to hire and fire key public officials in the interest of safeguarding our democracy. There was general consensus within the then opposition, and certainly widespread public support, for a system of parliamentary checks and balances to moderate executive power. The establishment of a parliamentary select committee (PSC) to specifically scrutinise the appointment of key public officials was, therefore, a key commitment to the people of Malaysia. Though rooted in a political promise rather than in a constitutional construct (at least for now), it remains binding nonetheless.

Seen in this context, Mahathir’s disregard for the PSC – and not for the first time – is troubling. True, most of Mahathir’s appointments thus far have been bold and inspiring but those who now cheer his wilful disregard of the PSC might want to remember that a future prime minister might not be so enlightened in his choice of public officials.

How quickly we seem to have forgotten the past. How quickly we seem to be abandoning the things we once fought for. How strange to hear PH leaders now insisting that no one should question Mahathir’s decisions. Wasn’t that what UMNO-BN leaders used to say about Najib’s decisions?

Strong leaders or strong institutions?

What is at stake here is whether we are going to put our trust in the prime minister (whoever he or she may be) to always make the right choices or whether we are going to insist on a system of checks and balances to safeguard our still vulnerable democracy from abuse. We ought to need no reminders of the destructive consequences of executive overreach; after all, we are in the mess we are in today precisely because previous prime ministers were all too fallible.

We have a unique opportunity to strengthen our democracy by building into our political system appropriate checks and balances; it must start with the prime minister respecting parliament and the PSC. Mahathir might find it inconvenient, a hinderance even, but for the sake of building that democracy we all yearn for, he must set the example and submit his appointments to parliament whether or not the constitution demands it.

A setback for democracy

Latheefa’s appointment is, without a doubt, an inspired one. She has a reputation of being fiercely independent and a proven track record of standing up for justice. She’s a great choice to head the MACC and all Malaysians will surely want to wish her every success in the battle against corruption.

Nevertheless, we ought to be rightly concerned about the prime minister’s commitment to reform, right to worry that unique opportunities for change are being squandered and right to worry that we are slowly drifting back to the bad old days.

[Dennis Ignatius | Kuala Lumpur |10th June 2019]