By Keruah Usit
COMMENT The new Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Paul Low has stepped down as president of Transparency International-Malaysia (TI-M) after overseeing the installation of his favoured successor, Akhbar Satar.
Akhbar is a former official of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC). However, Transparency International (TI) – TI-M’s parent body – has shown no concern of the fact that Akhbar will tiptoe around his former employer. The MACC head Abu Kassim Mohamad, on the other hand, has welcomed Akbar’s appointment. Low has assured us, in any case, that the MACC is “structured to be independent”.
Malaysians are indeed fortunate that TI-M, ostensibly a member of civil society, enjoys unprecedented camaraderie with this “independent” agency. Both the MACC – and now Paul Low – draw funding from, and report directly to, Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak’s office. Even watchdogs, it seems, must be fed.
The MACC has highlighted this independence from interference by its masterly inactivity – honed over years of careful practice – regarding the Scorpene submarine deal and Sarawak Chief Minister Abdul Taib Mahmud’s fabulous wealth.
The details of the MACC’s investigations, if any, on graft reports concerning Najib and Taib are so intricate that not a single byte of information has ever been shared with the public.
Similarly, the violent deaths of Teoh Beng Hock and Ahmad Sarbani, when they were under the control of the MACC, were simply a run of bad luck. Or perhaps the MACC’s interpretation of ensuring “transparency” is to open the windows.
Akhbar’s election, by a majority of TI-M exco members, is cause for celebration for the MACC at least. Malaysians must yearn for the opportunity for one of our be-ribboned police chiefs to head Amnesty International or the Human Rights Watch. It takes a policeman to catch a policeman, some might say, and to address institutional flaws.
Low’s elevation to cabinet to instill integrity is not widely expected to produce meaningful transformation within the Umno-PBB government. However, some would argue that decay is a sort of transformation.
Low’s integrity legacy as TI-M president
Paul Low became president of TI-M in 2009. Since then, Malaysia’s position in TI’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI) has remained static – 56th out of 180 countries and territories assessed in 2009, 56th out of 178 in 2010, 60th out of 183 in 2011, and 54th out of 176 in 2012. In fact, our position has been mediocre since the inaugural CPI in 1995 – we ranked 23rd out of 41 countries, when Najib’s mentor Dr Mahathir Mohamad was premier.
Low presided over TI-M during Suaram’s global exposition in 2011 on the scandals surrounding Malaysia’s RM7.3 billion purchase of two Scorpene submarines from French arms manufacturer DCNS.
“Although TI-UK urged us to engage with Suaram (after meeting with Suaram at the British Parliament), TI-Malaysia, at the exco meeting led by Paul Low, vehemently rejected this proposal,” said outgoing TI-M secretary-general and unsuccessful presidential candidate Josie Fernandez.
“TI-M refused to align or associate itself with organisations that are historically known to take strong and necessary positions on human rights. In order to address corruption, it is important for organisations like TI to understand human rights. Human rights was a language not only alien, but seemingly unpalatable, to the leadership of TI-M.”
Josie – who had been a vocal TI-M activist for a decade – championed indigenous land rights in Tasik Chini, Pahang, challenged corruption in our logging industry, in TI-M’s Forestry Governance and Integrity progamme, and pushed for reform in political financing.
“TI-M needed to support the Orang Asli in their advocacy for their right to customary land and to natural resources, (but) participation of the exco in events dealing directly with indigenous communities was minimal,” she added.
“Often, I was the only representative from the exco at community meetings, whereas at events where index announcements were made in the presence of the media, there was greater exco presence.”
Josie has since verbally expressed her intention to resign as TI-M secretary-general. It is noted that Low did not respond to a request for comment, sent by email.
Low arranged the theatrical signing ceremony of the Election Integrity Pledge with Najib – and witnessed by Taib – on Feb 20, according to Josie.
TI-M member K Koris Attan, president of the Penang Consumer Protection Association, criticised Low on May 17 for not informing the exco of the proposal for Najib to sign the pledge. Low then told Malaysiakini over the telephone that the exco had indeed endorsed the decision, and that Koris “can be removed” as a TI-M member, because “if you are a TI member, you have to be credible”.
Three days later, Low sent text messages to Josie, denying that he had said anything about Koris being dismissed as a TI-M member.
‘Told last-minute of the Integrity Pledge’
Josie confirmed that Low had never shared the plan for Najib to take the Election Integrity Pledge in meetings with his own TI-M exco, and it has never been mentioned in the minutes of exco meetings. She added that Low had informed exco members only two days before the ceremony. It is understood that after witnesses reported pervasive electoral bribery and fraud in GE13, she spoke out against BN’s breach of the pledge.
Low’s legacy also includes TI’s partnership of the International Hydropower Association (IHA) in a world congress on dams at the Borneo Convention Centre in Kuching, Sarawak, on May 21. The convention centre and the Sarawak mega-dam projects funnel enormous profits to Taib’s immediate family members.
Peter Kallang, a leading Sarawakian indigenous land rights activist, told the press that he was barred by IHA officials from the first day of the congress, although he had paid the hefty registration fee for the event.
TI’s senior adviser Dr Donal O’Leary – who had been a speaker at the congress – was forced to scramble to meet indigenous rights activists, for fear that TI would suffer bad publicity from this crude attempt at censorship. Low had been scheduled to speak, but later withdrew following his appointment to Najib’s cabinet.
Josie (left) complained that TI and Low approved sponsorship of the IHA congress without prior consultation of the entire TI-M exco line-up.
In response, TI wrote to TI-M to demand that exco members communicate with “one organisational voice” and “one clear message, which will enhance our brand and the public trust (of) the movement”.
TI’s new president is a former MACC man and a criminologist. The deputy president Mohamad Ali Hasan is chairperson of Koperasi Permodalan Melayu Negeri Johor (KPMNJ), a conglomerate that owns logging interests such as Kayu Utama.
Mohamad Ali has resigned as director of Kayu Utama, citing a conflict of interest with his role as adviser to the TI-M’s Forestry Governance and Integrity project, although he continues to chair KPMNJ.
It is clear that the new, all-male exco will continue the close ties cultivated by Low (right), as president of the Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers, with the corporate world.
Josie had been shocked to find that, on May 27, following her defeat in the TI-M presidential election, her secretary-general’s email account was hacked, apparently at the request of the new exco. In addition, her password was changed although she had not written her resignation letter yet.
TI’s website says it is “committed to advancing accountability, integrity and transparency. In our own operations, too, we aim to be an example of good governance, ethical practice and openness to greater transparency”.
In Malaysia, it appears that TI’s wish for a ban on public dissent within TI-M’s exco has come true, but “accountability, integrity and transparency” remain as distant a dream as when TI was born in 1995. – Malaysiakini
KERUAH USIT is a human rights activist – ‘anak Sarawak, bangsa Malaysia’ – and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org