Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Abdullah's last-ditch reforms hit trouble

Abdullah's last-ditch reforms hit trouble
18 Dec, 2008

Political insiders said Abdullah tried but failed to persuade the political establishment to bite the bullet and approve the tough measures necessary to rehabilitate the judiciary, fight high level corruption, raise efficiency and keep police abuse in check.


By Baradan Kuppusamy, Asia Times Online

Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi has tabled two new reform bills, but not surprisingly given his impending exit, both have run into strong opposition within and outside parliament. Abdullah's hopes of forging a consensus through the two crucial bills, hoped to give him some kind of positive reform legacy before he stands down in 2009, have been rocked by the dissent.

One bill has been designed to clean up the judiciary, and provide for the independent selection of judges, while the other aims to give greater powers to the Anti-Corruption Agency. Opposition lawmakers, lawyers, retired judges and even government

backbenchers all say the bills have been so watered-down that they have little bite.

The bills are expected to be passed, but without the broad support originally expected. "We are deeply disappointed," said Ambiga Sreenevasan, president of the Malaysian Bar Council, a professional body for 13,000 lawyers. "Although there are some improvements, the executive still has an overbearing presence."

Critics say that under the Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC) Bill, which Abdullah tabled in parliament on December 12, the executive would continue to have undue influence in the selection process.

"Under the JAC the selection is done by a committee, some of whose members are appointed by the government," said Sreenevasan. "The bill gives power to the government to appoint or sack committee members without giving reasons."

Of the proposed nine commission members, five would be appointed directly by the government. "Politicians and others connected with the government could end up in the committee and compromise its independence," she said.

In addition, the prime minister would have unfettered power to amend provisions for the JAC two years after the bill's approval in parliament. "We are worried - this last provision is highly unusual," she added.

Currently, the chief justice draws up a list of candidates from which the prime minister can choose and submit for royal assent, which is rarely withheld. Last August a judicial inquiry concluded that the selection process was open to abuse and that politicians and businessmen had colluded with senior judges to promote individuals unfit for the bench.

Meanwhile, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) bill will give wide new powers to officials to investigate and seize records, including bank accounts. But critics say that under the bill the MACC still cannot prosecute independently, as it must seek permission from the attorney general.

"We want the MACC to be placed under parliamentary [control] and be armed with independent powers to prosecute," said veteran opposition lawmaker Lim Kit Siang.

Abdullah has defended the bills, saying they would restore judicial confidence, fight corruption, and were a major step forward for the country. "My promise to the people is to institute reforms and I am doing just that," he told parliament when tabling the bills.

"I am fulfilling my promise of reform before I leave," he said. "Let's all close ranks for the sake of the nation."

Abdullah, who first took over as prime minister in 2003, asked his ruling United Malays Nasional Organization (UMNO) earlier this month to be allowed to remain in office until March so that he could carry out the promised reforms.

Opposition lawmakers have requested a delay of at least three weeks for them to study the bills and recommend changes, but the government, which has a 32 seat majority in the 222-seat parliament, is adamant they will be passed without delay.

Opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim, while welcoming Abdullah's initiative to fight corruption and clean up the judiciary, said changes are needed to ensure that the bills are independent and free of political interference.

Anwar said anti-corruption officers must be given full discretion to charge in court anyone under investigation and found to be involved in corrupt practices, without reference to the attorney general's chambers for permission.

With the clock on his tenure ticking, Abdullah does not have the luxury of time to make changes and retable the bills. Already the focus of the political establishment, investors and the diplomatic community is on the incoming leader, Najib Tun Razak, who takes over in March, 2009 as the new prime minister.

Political insiders said Abdullah tried but failed to persuade the political establishment to bite the bullet and approve the tough measures necessary to rehabilitate the judiciary, fight high level corruption, raise efficiency and keep police abuse in check.

These are the areas Abdullah had promised to act on after winning the biggest political mandate in Malaysia's history at the 2004 general election. After failing to carry out these promised reforms, voters turned against UMNO at this year's March elections, giving the political opposition control over five of the countries 13 states.

The abrupt manner in which the two bills were introduced last week, when the current parliament session was nearing an end, sparked an uproar and fueled charges that Abdullah purposely delayed the legislation in order to catch the opposition off guard and bludgeon the bills through.

The bills' contents were not made public before they were introduced and the cloak of secrecy that enveloped their drafting has resurrected charges about the lack of transparency surrounding Abdullah's government.

To be sure, some of the clauses of the anti-corruption bill are progressive, such as its wider scope for investigation and the total anonymity promised for whistle blowers. Five "independent" committees are also to be formed to mitigate any excesses of executive authority over the commission.

Still many remain dissatisfied. "What we need is a simple, independent commission to select people of the highest integrity as judges, and for another commission to catch corrupt crooks and effectively prosecute them," said a senior lawyer.

"What we have now are convoluted systems because of numerous compromises made to satisfy political factions ... the key aims are lost in the urge to satisfy the entrenched political forces," the lawyer said. "It was a battle between the weak reformer and the strong entrenched forces. Convoluted, watered-down versions are the result."

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