DEATH threats, lawsuits and even face-offs with gangsters are some of the things I deal with in the course of my work as a councillor in the Petaling Jaya City Council (MBPJ). These are occupational hazards that come with the territory.
TeohOn 16 July 2009, Teoh Beng Hock, a public servant like I am though serving in a different capacity, died. He met his death soon after being interrogated by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) at its Selangor headquarters. Following Teoh’s tragic death, I’m now wondering if I should add a new health hazard to my job: investigation or interrogation by the MACC.
The suspicious circumstances that led to Teoh’s death are, rightly so, being questioned by the public. One important question that needs to be answered is this: what exactly is the procedure for questioning a person?
The reason I ask this question is that, all too often, I myself am stumped by the lack of any proper standard operation procedure (SOP) within the MBPJ. For example, most MBPJ departments have no SOP for preparing a project proposal even though the finance committee has to approve expenses above RM20,000. When councillors ask for things like cost comparison, analysis of expected use for the proposed project, and other pertinent details, the officers cannot answer.
Basically, this lack of SOP means that if the councillors themselves do not actively scrutinise each project every step of the way, opportunities for corruption and power abuse are possible.
Pardon my seemingly unrelated analogy to the topic at hand, but I just wanted to illustrate how ill-defined the government system is. We have laws that stipulate what we must do, but the process of how we should do something is not always clearly defined, leading to many arbitrary or contradictory decisions being made, both in the past and present.
Should the MACC suffer from the same lack of SOPs as the MBPJ, it could mean that they do not have an SOP on how an interrogation should be conducted. This would mean their officers would be left to their own devices when conducting an investigation
Should the MACC actually have an SOP for interrogation, it would not be too much to ask them to make it public, unless the SOP happens to be classified under the Official Secrets Act (OSA), which in Malaysia, could happen.
On a related matter, Kajang municipal councillor Tan Boon Wah‘s description of the interrogation that he went through with the MACC is rather frightening. I can only hope that Tan’s experience isn’t the SOP that the MACC has to conduct interrogations.
Call for change
The calls for a more transparent and accountable system isn’t just aimed at the MACC. After more than a year in power, the Selangor Pakatan Rakyat (PR) government has yet to implement any meaningful changes and is still using the deeply flawed system inherited from the Barisan Nasional.
Which brings us to the role the Selangor PR government played in the terrible mess surrounding Teoh’s death: the state government didn’t change the system fast enough for it to be transparent and accountable.
The MACC investigation was directed at the assemblypersons’ public expenditure fund. Each assemblyperson, irrespective of political affiliation, is allocated RM500,000 a year by the state to spend on their constituents.
The guideline on how the money can be spent, on a maximum monthly or transactional basis, is as follows:
- Public donation: RM2,500
- Mesra Rakyat programme: RM20,000 (recently raised from RM10,000)
- Small development projects: RM20,000
- Emergency funding (flood/fire victims): RM2,000
- Miscellaneous monthly administrative expenses: RM20,000
Once the required form is filled up, the district office vets and approves the expenditure. Beyond these categories for which funds can be applied for, however, there are no clearly stated black-and-white guidelines, restrictions or mechanisms to justify the expenditure and ensure that the money is used for its intended purpose.
Had the process for fund application been more clearly defined and made available for public scrutiny, it would have prevented any corruption and served as a check-and-balance mechanism for officers at all levels.
More importantly, a clearly defined system would have prevented public accusations of corruption, and left no opportunity for easy political persecution. Fine-tuning the check-and-balance mechanisms for how public funds can be used by assemblypersons and state executive councillors then seems imperative.
In the long term, it would be as imperative as ensuring the MACC adheres to SOP that do not somehow lead to tragic events such as Teoh’s untimely death.
MBPJ councillor KW Mak believes that pressure groups can only go so far in demanding for change. Change only happens when enough good people get into government to help fix it.