KL reforms panel seeks to improve checks and balances

A supporter of Pakatan Harapan waves the coalition's party flag in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia on May 10, 2018.
A supporter of Pakatan Harapan waves the coalition's party flag in Petaling Jaya, Malaysia on May 10, 2018.PHOTO: REUTERS

A new panel looking into reforming Malaysia's institutions has set its sights on fixing a skewed electoral system and minimising the powers of the executive over important appointments such as judges, the public prosecutor and commissioners of the anti-graft agency.

The Institutional Reforms Committee, set up under the purview of the Council of Eminent Persons which is advising the fledgling Pakatan Harapan (PH) government, said this was to ensure checks and balances in the country.

The ousted Barisan Nasional administration has been repeatedly accused of centralising power under then Prime Minister Najib Razak, who was widely viewed to have used his position to stay in power and hamstring political opponents, despite being under a cloud over the 1Malaysia Development Berhad scandal for years.

"Our country has had an erosion of independence in terms of the rule of law, while the separation of powers has also been overlooked," said committee chief Karam Chand Vohrah, a retired Court of Appeal judge.

The prime minister is currently empowered to reject or approve judicial appointments, and recommend the leadership of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission and the attorney-general - who is also the public prosecutor. The Election Commission is also appointed based on the premier's advice.

"We are looking at checks and balances, because that is going to ensure that institutions remain independent no matter who is in power. We will have to look at some of the appointments which only the prime minister can recommend because that is what has caused the centralisation of power in the executive," said former Bar Council president Ambiga Sreenevasan, another committee member.

Datuk Vohrah also said electoral reforms were "very, very important", including cleaning up the voter register.

Another committee member, constitutional law expert Shad Saleem Faruqi, pointed out that current polling boundaries failed to follow legal requirements, with some constituencies being nine times larger than others.

The panel is also looking at how to separate the offices of the attorney-general and public prosecutor.

It will have just 60 days to present its recommendations to the government, a timeline that Datuk Ambiga called a "mammoth task" for the committee.

Two others members of the committee are Datuk Mah Weng Kwai, a commissioner with the Malaysia Human Rights Commission, or Suhakam, and National Patriots Association president Mohamed Arshad Raji.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 17, 2018, with the headline 'KL reforms panel seeks to improve checks and balances'. Print Edition | Subscribe