IT is back to basics for Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) Chief Commissioner Latheefa Koya as she plots the way forward for Malaysia in the fight against corruption.
To her, it’s all about schools and trying to inculcate basic values, such as integrity, in children.
That is why MACC is working closely with the Education Ministry, she says, while reminiscing about her school days “when we were taught” basic values, such as to give bus seats to the elderly.
“Those things were planted in our heads. In the same way, if someone gives you money to do something illegal, is this acceptable? Because MACC conducted a survey years ago and students said they were willing to be involved in corruption if given the opportunity.
“They don’t feel shame. Years ago, government servants caught being involved in corruption were young officers... that means something is wrong. So we need to come back to this issue. To prevent corruption, we need to make sure these things are fixed.”
Latheefa says the National Anti-Corruption Plan 2019-2023 comprises more than 100 initiatives and MACC has the responsibility of carrying out more than half of them.
Among the government agencies involved in carrying out the rest of the initiatives, the Education Ministry plays a big role.
MACC, says Latheefa, is paying visits to state governments to talk about two things.
First is to convince state governments to follow the lead of the Dewan Rakyat, which recently passed a motion making it compulsory for members of parliament to declare their assets and those of immediate family members.
Latheefa says the commission is trying to get state governments to make it mandatory for assemblymen to declare their assets.
The second is for state government administrations to appoint certified integrity officers.
The Sarawak government was the first to have taken this step.
Some time back, says Latheefa, the Sarawak chief minister established an integrity unit under the Chief Minister’s Office and appointed an ombudsman.
This, she says, is what MACC wants to see in all states.
Latheefa speaks about a wide range of issues during the interview. The following are excerpts from the interview:
Question: When Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad picked you as the new chief commissioner, what was your reaction, and what do you think you can do for MACC and the country?
Answer: Of course, the moment has dissipated in terms of excitement. It was shocking not just to the people out there, but also to me. It was difficult to say “no” when the offer came. I had to consider whether to say “no” and whether I could serve the nation probably in a more effective way. So taking into account all that, I decided to take a chance. It’s different from what I have been doing all this while.
Question: Dr Mahathir said the people’s perception of the government’s seriousness in tackling the scourge reflected a 11 per cent hike in trust, from 59.8 per cent in 2016 to 70.8 per cent last year. What’s your aim on this and what will be done to continue getting public confidence?
A: I need to carry out my duty transparently and within the power of the law. If I am seen as trying to cover up corruption, that will affect public confidence. Our duty is to investigate complaints lodged with MACC and take the next step.
MACC is not only about arrest and prosecute. We have an equally important part in prevention, which many are not aware of or do not understand. There are two levels of prevention — prevention and deterrence. We need to give equal attention to prevention, hence we want to tighten the system, prevent leakage and so on.
Q: What are the efforts to promote prevention?
A: We have the methods in place. We have our information division, but is what being done now enough? For example, we want to ensure that the values of hating and rejecting corruption are instilled in the younger generation. One or two programmes are not enough. We want to ensure that these values are included in school modules.
MACC doesn’t have the budget to publish a textbook, but we have the means and capacity to provide the content. For example, we need to cooperate with the Education Ministry so that we can ensure anti-corruption values are promoted effectively.
Not just for show, it must be serious.
“Back in the days, we had moral education. We were taught basic values like when you are in a bus, offer your seat to an elderly person... those things were planted in our heads.
Q: Has the proposal been brought to the Education Ministry?
A: Yes, in fact, we will meet Education Minister Dr Maszlee Malik next month to discuss this. Under the National Anti-Corruption Plan 2019-2023, there are more than 100 initiatives that need to be implemented. MACC needs to carry out more than half, others will be carried out by the ministries. The Education Ministry is playing a huge role in anti-corruption efforts. We want to work with them to make this happen.
Q: How do you tell if a civil servant is involved in corruption? What action can be taken against civil servants who live beyond their means?
A: What we have in public administration is asset declaration. After government servants declare their assets, if they have new assets, they need to re-declare. Failure to do so is considered a misconduct and action can be taken. Secondly, a department chief may file a report if he or she believes a subordinate is involved in corruption.
It all depends on asset declaration. For example, some government servants may go for overseas holidays multiple times a year despite people knowing how much they make for a living. This is living beyond their means, so there will be an investigation. We will check their asset declaration, not only the suspected officers, but also their spouses.
Q: Is it compulsory for government servants to declare their assets?
A: Yes. Compulsory for everyone, including me. They will be given a number where the Public Service Department can keep track of things.
Q: It is now compulsory for members of parliament to declare assets. What about assemblymen?
A: We are visiting states and in some states, we are allowed to meet with the state administrators. We have visited Kelantan and Sarawak. We have advised them on the implementation of asset declaration to boost transparency in their administration.
We suggested that they do the same thing as members of parliament. It’s up to them how they want to do it, but they need to start somewhere.
You’re a public figure. You have stepped into public life. You cannot claim you want to keep your life private. You took the risk to be a politician. This is how people expect you to show commitment to a cleaner government.
Asset declaration is basic. It’s only the first step. There are many more. We have just started, unlike other countries that have taken the second or third step.
Q: In the previous government, most of the MPs and assemblymen seemed to live beyond their means, and yet, nothing was done to address this, as claimed by certain quarters. Now that you have taken over, how are you going to change things?
A: It’s not for me to change. I am a public servant who can only work within the law. So if the government has come out with the law that requires parliamentarians to declare their assets, then that is the government’s policy. We are only the executors. As far as I am concerned, since the motion has been approved, they have to follow. They were the ones who tabled and approved the motion, hence they need to comply. They cannot have it both ways.
If we had this issue of asset declaration, say, 10 years ago, would we be in the situation where we lost billions of ringgit? Maybe not. So this is the first step. At least we are moving in the right direction.
Q: Since May last year, we have seen a lot of MPs being investigated and brought to court. Are there more on the MACC radar?
A: Many are on our radar. Not just the old ones, but the new ones too. We have to be sure because power is something that is “tasty”. It’s very attractive. Power and access to funds. So you have to have self-control.
For me, politicians and the people around them are on our radar. If we receive complaints, we will look into them.
Q: Back to university students, do they think that corruption is okay? Look at what’s happening now, ex-prime minister is being charged. He smiles in court, he is giving press conferences. Not only him but also other senior government servants, and he still gets the people’s support. It looks like “corruption is cool”. Is that the culture now?
A: I hope not. The thing is, what was the most important thing for Pakatan Harapan politicians before they won in the last general election? It was related to corruption, for example, 1MDB, and they won because of that. That means the people reject corruption. They want a cleaner government.
When the VIPs are smiling — trust me, I know politicians well — that is their strategy to say they are not affected. We can’t do anything about it. If you think you can continue smiling, go ahead. I think people are not going to be fooled by that.
Q: We have had government agencies take corruption-free pledges before. Two years ago, in Penang, they took the pledge. A year later, several government officers were found to be involved in corrupt practices. Will you continue with this?
A: I think we need to ensure they hold on to their pledge. In fact, the pledge will be the main theme for this year’s Merdeka. But pledging alone is not enough. There must be commitment.
That is why, under prevention, we have a unit called the integrity unit. This unit trains certified integrity officers (CIOs).
They are placed in agencies, government-linked companies and projects where the government holds interest. The CIOs become our eyes and ears.
Over the last two years, you can see a lot of corruption cases involving GLCs, Felda Global Ventures and the Road Transport Department. It’s because we have people inside (the CIOs) who understand what is going on there.
It’s about governance and integrity, so they will advise the board of directors (of the agencies and GLCs) if something is wrong. If there is a situation, we will know and we can start the investigation.
Q: Before you were appointed MACC chief commissioner, you were a PKR member. There are some who believe that your appointment was to protect “Camp Azmin” (PKR deputy president Datuk Seri Azmin Ali). How are you going to manage the perception of links to Azmin?
A: I will leave it to the people to decide. As far as I am concerned, you can judge me by what I do. I can’t say much. It’s not for me to decide.
I left the party formally a day before the appointment. But I have not been active in politics for more than a year.
I was always focusing on human rights issues, but somehow, everybody suddenly remembers me as a PKR member.
But, of course, I needed to officially end my membership when I knew that I got this job. I cannot continue to be a PKR member and a MACC chief. That’s not proper.
Q: Due to your previous political affiliations, people are still going to question whether you will go easy on PH or PKR politicians when it comes to investigation, or whether you will go after Barisan Nasional or other opposition politicians. We noticed that when allegations of corruption were brought against Azmin, you took a back seat and handed things over to your deputy, Datuk Seri Azam Baki. Is that going to be your policy from now?
A: Depends on the case. In this case, one needs to understand what my role is. I am the chief commissioner. Under me, I have three deputy chief commissioners. One is in charge of operations — who is Azam — one is in charge of prevention and another person is in charge of management and professionalism.
So it is only natural that whenever we get a complaint, it will go under operations.
But in this case, because I have been accused of being seen as (part of) a camp, I need to be clear. If I don’t say it, any outcome will be questioned, so I recuse myself from that case.
But that doesn’t mean I can’t take action against PKR members or non-members. It’s not a policy to step out of everything because that means I might as well not do my work.
But having said that, I will be fair. Judging by the reaction (when I was appointed), I think those who reacted were mostly politicians (from the government). If I am supposed to be biased towards the government, they wouldn’t have reacted in the manner that they did.
Which means at the end of the day, you can judge only from what I do. But I think they have this feeling that I might go after everybody. If not, only those from the opposition would be upset with me. However, it seems that a lot of people are upset, including members of my former party.
Q: Last month, you announced that MACC had filed a civil forfeiture suit against 41 entities and individuals. Have any of them filed an affidavit or returned the money?
A: That you have to check with the deputy public prosecutor. But there are some who have filed affidavits and some who wanted to return the money.
Q: Some of the cases like Media Association of Penang and small bodies, they don’t even know who gave them the money. What is your comment on that?
A: You need to know what AMLA (the Anti-Money Laundering Act) is. AMLA was introduced and approved by the former government, not us. Under the act, MACC has the right to execute the law. When we take action, it means that we have identified whether or not the money given to these people was “dirty money”.
Once we know that the source of the money is not proper, we will identify the accounts into which the money is deposited, then file a notice to have those accounts frozen.
We do this so that the money can’t be moved into other accounts. Account holders will receive a notice. If they think it is not right and that the money is “clean”, they can file to set aside the freeze order.
In the case of the 41 accounts, they have been frozen for the past 12 months. Once we freeze an account, we have 12 months to take further action. The money has been frozen in the accounts, now we want to forfeit.
So you have to explain in an affidavit whether you took the steps to know where the money came from. If you can explain, there is no problem. We let the court decide.
It is also a message to the public. You cannot simply receive money without knowing the source. You cannot allow yourself to be used for money laundering. You get some extra money, you have to check the source. You can’t use ignorance as an excuse.