Malaysian PM's hopes of positive legacy dashed as critics attack 'watered down' anti-graft bills

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 13 December, 2008, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 13 December, 2008, 12:00am

Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi's hopes to forge consensus on two crucial anti-corruption bills - giving him a positive legacy of reform as he prepares to leave office - have been dashed by harsh attacks on the proposed laws.

One bill is to clean up Malaysia's judiciary and provide for independent selection of judges, while the other is to give greater powers to the anti-corruption agency. However opposition lawmakers, lawyers, retired judges and even government backbenchers say the bills have been heavily watered down.

They are still expected to pass, but without the broad support Mr Abdullah had hoped for.

Critics said that under the Judicial Appointments Commission (JAC) Bill that Mr Abdullah tabled in Parliament on Wednesday, the executive would continue to have undue influence in the selection process.

'Under the JAC the selection is done by a committee, some of whose members are appointed by the government,' Ambiga Sreenevasan, president of the Bar Council, said. 'The bill gives power to the government to appoint or sack committee members without giving reasons.'

Of the proposed nine members of the commission, five would be appointed directly by the government.

'Politicians and others connected with the government could end up in the committee and compromise its independence,' she said.

In addition, the prime minister would have unfettered power to amend provisions for the JAC two years after the bill's approval in parliament. 'We are worried ... this last provision is highly unusual,' she said.

At present, the chief justice draws up a list of candidates as judges from which the prime minister can choose.

In August, a judicial inquiry concluded that the selection process was open to abuse, and politicians and businessmen had colluded with senior judges to promote individuals unfit for the bench.

Meanwhile, the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) Bill gives new powers to officers to investigate and seize records, including bank accounts - but critics say that under the bill it still cannot prosecute independently but must seek permission from the attorney general.

'We want the MACC to be placed under parliamentary [control] and be armed with independent powers to prosecute,' veteran opposition lawmaker Lim Kit Siang said.

Mr Abdullah defended the bills, saying they would restore judicial confidence and fight corruption and were a major step forward for the country. 'My promise to the people is to institute reforms and I am doing just that,' he told Parliament when tabling the bills. 'I am fulfilling my promise of reform before I leave.'

Mr Abdullah, who took over as prime minister in 2003, asked his ruling United Malays National Organisation party this month to be allowed to remain in office until March so that he could carry out his promised reforms.

Opposition lawmakers are meeting to work out a common stance on the bills and are expected to walk out of Parliament in Monday's debate.

Officials said the government majority in Parliament would ensure passage of the bills.