COMMENT | The appointment of Latheefa Koya as the new MACC chief commissioner has been described as “sudden,” “surprising” and even “mind-boggling” by some.
But is it really so surprising to appoint a human rights lawyer with almost two decades of experience behind her, a woman known for her integrity and straight-talking, to tackle corruption in 'Malaysia Baru'?
After the 14th general election, there was a need to reset and reform the nation’s institutions, as the election of the Pakatan Harapan government clearly demonstrated that Malaysians had had enough of gross corruption and abuse of power.
The previous government was notorious for giving powerful positions to those who could turn a blind eye or even connive in their wrongdoing. When the whole system is rotten, you cannot continue doing business as usual and expect anything to change.
It is time for a different approach, and this government has broken the mould by making unconventional choices for major appointments in several key public institutions.
A number of top positions have been filled by new personalities. Rather than choosing officers who have had careers within the institutions themselves, at least five have been appointed from non-traditional backgrounds.
Attorney-General Tommy Thomas and Election Commission chairperson Azhar Azizan Harun were both private lawyers with no background in public service.
Dewan Rakyat speaker Mohamad Ariff Md Yusof, although a politician, is more well known as a highly respected former judge.
Abdul Hamid Bador has risen from being placed in cold storage four years ago for standing up against wrongdoings of the previous government, to being appointed the new inspector-general of police.
Even our new chief justice, Tengku Maimun Tuan Mat (photo), is best known for her dissenting judgments in controversial cases which challenged the government.
Independence, courage and integrity
All of these choices are unprecedented in Malaysia’s history. It is clear that what the prime minister is looking for is people who have demonstrated independence, courage and integrity.
Each of these figures will bring something new to their roles, a breath of fresh air after decades of cronyism and nepotism, but none have sparked controversy as much as Latheefa.
Firstly, it must be said that this is a valid appointment. The de facto Law Minister Liew Vui Keong has pointed out that the MACC Act 2009 states that the appointment of the chief commissioner is made by the king, on the advice of the prime minister.
It is Dr Mahathir Mohamad’s prerogative to make this decision himself. He has correctly done so, and for the right reasons.
Mahathir has been looking for someone with integrity, in his own words, "somebody who is of strong character," and he has found that in Latheefa.
As he put it, quite simply, "If she finds something against the law, she will investigate and report." Neither his reasoning nor the legal process can be faulted. She has been appointed by the king on the advice of the prime minister, as required by law.
The major criticism levied, not at Latheefa herself, but at the process by which she was appointed, is that the Parliamentary Special Select Committee for Major Public Appointments was not consulted.
The select committee was formed in December 2018, but has not been particularly active since its formation.
Of course, the use of the select committee is desirable, but unless and until the law is amended to make this body fully operational and mandatory, the prime minister is under no obligation to use this system, nor be bound by its views or recommendations.
As explained by former Federal Court judge Gopal Sri Ram (photo), it would have been unconstitutional if these public appointments were vetted by Parliament, as that is not what the law dictates.
It is unclear what the select committee has been doing since December, but a number of important public appointments have been made without its involvement, including the IGP, the chief justice and members of the Election Commission.
These are all major appointments, but appear not to have bothered the select committee. This raises the question, why is there a selective outrage only at this one?
Perhaps the answer lies in the very reasons why Mahathir says he chose Latheefa in the first place: "She is very straight. She says what is the truth. She doesn’t mince her words."
It may be that those appointed to other major public positions are seen as less outspoken and divisive, and that the select committee has only stirred when the prime minister appointed someone not to its liking.
The suggestion that Latheefa may not be qualified for the job, purely because she has not held office in the MACC or other law enforcement agencies, misses the point.
The MACC is in dire need of a complete overhaul, and appointing someone from within its ranks would inevitably lead to more of the same.
An external appointment from outside of the commission is precisely what is needed to shake things up.
As for the allegation of political bias, even before her resignation from PKR, Latheefa’s relationship with the party could hardly be described as harmonious. She has never been one to blindly toe the party line and has been known to challenge the leadership.
However, she has not been active in party politics for over a year, following a fall out within the party.
Instead, Latheefa’s focus has been on her work at Lawyers for Liberty, taking on cases and tackling hard issues such as statelessness, child marriage and the death penalty. She is much better known, and rightfully so, for her work as a human rights lawyer and activist rather than as a PKR politician.
Furthermore, we need to get past the idea that just because someone has participated in party politics, that they must be seen as partisan forever.
This is particularly pertinent in the context of Malaysia’s recent past, where civil society space was so restricted that many activists like Latheefa joined the political opposition as one of the few ways to affect change and make their voices heard.
I have worked alongside Latheefa for a long time. We have both challenged human rights abuses and taken on difficult cases under oppressive circumstances, often under threat of arrest by the previous regime.
We co-founded Lawyers for Liberty along with N. Surendran (photo), and we have been arrested together. Even Latheefa’s detractors recognise her qualities as a no-nonsense, principled lawyer who is not afraid to call out injustice and set things straight.
She certainly has her critics, but this is a result of her nature as someone who is fearless and honest no matter what, even if it means making a few enemies along the way. Friend or foe, Latheefa will challenge wrongdoing when she sees it.
The process by which she was appointed was beyond her control, but was valid under the law. Let us not hold that against her.
Fears that her political past will influence her actions are purely speculation. Let us not judge her before she has had a fair chance. If she is the wrong choice and abuses her power, it will be for all to see.
Latheefa herself would be the first person to encourage us to scrutinise and hold to account anyone in public office. As she acknowledged in her first press statement as chief commissioner, “Everyone is entitled to question, criticise, or express their opinion.”
She remains characteristically unfazed by the media storm, and focused on the task at hand. Her message was simple: "My job is clear. It is to go after corruption anywhere and everywhere it is found."
Now we must let her get on with her job.
ERIC PAULSEN is the Malaysia representative to the Asean Intergovernmental Commission of Human Rights (AICHR).
The views expressed here are those of the author/contributor and do not necessarily represent the views of Malaysiakini.