It would seem that from out of nowhere the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) has managed to obtain and release nine authentic audio tapes which feature embattled former Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak, who is already on trial on 42 charges of abuse of office, corruption and money laundering.
Najib, 20 months after leaving office, has held forth cavalierly as a man who is innocent, and as a strident critic of the current government led by Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
The trials involving him have been proceeding, it would seem for an eternity, although the actual hearings have lasted about six months. From the reports of the proceedings in court it is clear that Najib was a bad choice for prime ministerial office as he was involved in egregious, dubious and questionable conduct from the beginning of his tenure in office.
What emerges from the evidence adduced so far that is published material is that he was an avaricious, power-crazy, high living, henpecked politician who put his immediate family’s interest above that of the public good. On a personal level, Najib is known to be a considerate, compassionate and personable leader, somewhat caring of the country’s ethnic minorities, who was generous and protective of some members of minorities in the civil service.
MACC’s Action Questionable?
The MACC’s manner of releasing the audio tapes was shocking, unprecedented and rather unusual. It would seem that after some deliberation the MACC wanted it to be known that there were these incriminating tapes which suggested outrageously inappropriate and illegal conduct. The MACC must have had very good grounds to make these audio tapes public. It had decided that it would circumvent established procedures which would have had to start with a police report.
The MACC, however, also has not stated whether the making of these tape recordings was legal or appropriate. Now that these tapes are in the public domain there will be some pressure on the relevant authorities to take appropriate action.
Had the audio tapes not been introduced into the public domain there would have been, in this new somewhat upstart Malaysia, rumours about it, speculation, demands for its release, impatience with the slow process of establishing their authenticity, and possibly unfounded allegations that Najib’s loyalists in the system had sabotaged and damaged the tapes. The MACC’s action in summarily releasing the audio tapes has preempted all these unnecessary complications and valid concerns.
The audio tapes provide a rare insight into the weak character and misconduct of the former Prime Minister, his uxorious relationship, his wife’s assessment that he was surrounded by goons, his attempt as a father to save his stepson from troubles with the US Department of Justice, his personal request for something irregular to a Crown Prince from the United Arab Emirates and other details of his dealings with his officials. Listeners of the audio tapes are free to draw their own conclusions.
In Malaysia, this kind of information is never available. This information about the actions of a former Prime Minister over a specific period of time is now not only available to Malaysians but to everyone who is interested. Some of this information actually denigrates and scandalises the nation. It shows up the country as one in which there is scant respect for sacrosanct office procedure, confidentiality, ethics and morality. Yet it must be affirmed that Malaysia is a highly successful and best functioning parliamentary democracy in South-east Asia although there are, as in every other country, obviously tainted and toxic elements within the system.
The V K Lingam Blot
Some 13 years earlier, when the V K Lingam tape went viral, it showed a senior lawyer loosely bragging about his connections, his easy access to top judges, his capacity to influence the elevation of senior judges and promote the so-called interest of the government of the day.
This was a most distasteful disclosure. It showed state capture and made a mockery of any semblance of meritocracy, order and observance of regulations in the administration of justice of the nation.
A Royal Commission of Inquiry into the Lingam Video Clip established the authenticity of the clip but its findings were later challenged and nothing conclusive seems to have come out of that inquiry. The Lingam inquiry and the present case involving Najib show up Malaysia as a nation that is somewhat lax on the most fundamental issue of the rule of law and of maintaining proper and appropriate decorum when holding high office.
Good Conduct Essential
Holders of public office must uphold the spirit and supremacy of the Malaysian Constitution, be loyal to the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong, respect the law, maintain the confidentiality of official discussions and documents, avoid conflict of interest situations, respect the secrecy regulations and must at all times give topmost priority to national interest.
There is nothing abnormal about requiring the Prime Minister, ministers, federal and other court officials, the police and security officials, editors of newspapers, parliamentarians and other officials to adhere to these norms of legal, ethical, moral and appropriate conduct. In the private sector, lawyers, bankers, doctors, auditors, academics, accountants and other professionals must uphold and maintain high standards of conduct. Transparency and accountability are integral to such exemplary conduct.
In the new Malaysia created on May 10, 2018 a start had been made to re-establishing this system of tested trusteeship which had served the country well in the early years, especially during the administration of the country’s first Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, up to the early years of the first administration of Dr Mahathir.
Then the country seemed to have crept into a period of meaningless sloganeering, one in which the top levels of the bureaucracy failed to speak the truth to the political leadership. Top officials nearing retirement were more keen on securing positions beyond their retirement than in speaking the truth. They were rather shameless in seeking positions in the private sector to supplement their pensions. It was such conduct that resulted in the limited success of many of Dr Mahathir’s initiatives, including the Multimedia Super Corridor. At the peak of their careers they were seeking retirement perks and posts instead of upholding their trusteeship responsibilities.
A Big Blight
This latest action on the part of MACC Chief Commissioner Latheefa Koya, which may appear arbitrary or outrageous, has to be viewed sympathetically in a larger context. That larger context is the state of Malaysia today. It is a dynamic country in a state of flux with several hundred silos functioning as if they are not a part of the whole.
There is constant agitation and acrimony about overarching concerns relating to various issues including the highest status of the Yang Di-Pertuan Agong, the separation of powers, national unity, equal citizenship, loyalty, the role of the civil service as an impartial, independent, accountable and just organisation, the watchdog role of the press and media and the revamp of a diffuse, damaged and almost deviant education system.
The writing of memoranda, writing in to the press and the making of police reports cannot adequately capture the real state of dissatisfaction and the urgent need for prompt action.
Remember that Najib, although claiming to be shocked by the billions in his account, never went to the police. Ms Latheefa’s action is a symptom arising from the inaction that has confused and convulsed 99 per cent of the people in Malaysia.
This inertia is a reflection of a situation in which institutions have been weakened. Sometimes a senior personality entrusted to run an organisation can exercise his or her authority in such a manner as to be able to forgive and overlook gross misconduct. The institution’s worth then becomes compromised.
A sitting Court of Appeal Judge, Mr Hamid Sultan Abu Backer, had also made some startling and sensational statements on the inner workings of the highest levels of the Judiciary nearly a year ago. For a time there was a vague expectation that following these random allegations there would have been an inquiry of some kind into those allegations. Today those highest officials of the Judiciary who were in office when the allegations surfaced have retired and have assumed, almost without even a token break, chairmanships in parastatals and private companies. Has the matter been swept under the carpet or is there so much to do that the leadership had decided time spent on these things is a waste of resources?
Thinking Outside The Box?
Both Ms Latheefa and Mr Hamid must have believed that they had acted in the public or national interest, in the interest of 99 per cent of the people of Malaysia.
When one is part of a hierarchical precedence one gets to know well how certain individuals and institutions work. To go to these individuals and institutions with any legitimate cause one must have reasonable faith that a certain course of action will be instituted. If one does not have that confidence one has to appeal to the public domain to see that justice is done. To nitpick and fault these individuals is an exercise in futility. If institutions worked perfectly these issues will not arise. One has to remember the short shrift given to Mr Abu Kassim Mohamed, one of Ms Latheefa’s most illustrious predecessors, who was eased out for doing his duty.
These nine audio tapes contain a considerable cache of controversial information and they also show a sly and shadowy side of Najib’s conduct. His sleaze is reminiscent of Richard Nixon’s misdemeanour while being US President. The Malaysian press and media have played a courageous and commendable role in publicising the contents of these tapes. They deserve approbation. Ms Latheefa should be congratulated for her courage.
Will the Pakatan Harapan Government bring to bear both the extraordinary effort and tenacity all the way to see to the proper conclusion of this sordid affair. The focus of the government should, after all, be on addressing the concerns of 99 per cent of the population. Peculiar pleas about sub judicial actions, a much discarded feature of jury trials of a long bygone era, have no place in a robust and feisty Malaysia.
The government is not being asked to be populist but pragmatic and do the doable thing.
Dato M Santhananaban is a retired ambassador with more than than 45 years of public sector experience.
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of The Independent Singapore. /TISG