Press statement by Kua Kia Soong, SUARAM Adviser, 19 Nov 2019

Malaysian politicians do not seem to understand what democracy and the rule of law mean – they think that they are still in a feudal fiefdom where there is an expectation of privilege of office whatever the circumstances. Paul Yong Choo Kiong, who has been charged at the Sessions Court for rape had first refused to go on leave pending the disposal of his court case, arguing that he would continue carrying out his responsibilities as Perak executive councillor despite being advised to. He subsequently stepped down saying he was going to concentrate on his trial but has now returned to work. The Tronoh assemblyman, who is the state exco for housing, local government, public transport, non-Muslim affairs and new villages, said he made the decision after discussing with Menteri Besar Ahmad Faizal Azumu. Just like that…because he says so!

Paul Yong has been charged under Section 376 of the Penal Code which carries up to 20 years imprisonment and whipping upon conviction.

Leadership by example

Older Malaysians will still remember that when Dr Mahathir first became Prime Minister in 1981, his slogan for his administration was “Leadership by Example”. Unfortunately, within the DAP, leaders like Paul Yong has the example of the Secretary General of his party, Lim Guan Eng to go by.

When Lim was charged with corruption involving the conversion of land use from agricultural to residential and the purchase of a plot of land and bungalow at below market value, he refused to take leave as then Penang chief minister. He was charged with using his position as chief minister to gain gratification for himself and wife Betty Chew Gek Cheng by approving the application for conversion of agricultural land to a public housing zone in Balik Pulau to Magnificent Emblem Sdn Bhd. He also faced a second charge of using his position to obtain a plot of land and bungalow at No. 25, Jalan Pinhorn, on July 28, 2015, from businesswoman Phang Li Koon for RM2.8mil, at well below its market value.

Today it is not just Paul Yong who can refer to Lim Guan Eng’s corruption case as a precedent for hanging on to his post in government for if Najib was still the Prime Minister today, he could likewise point to Lim’s example and refuse to take leave from office while his 1MDB case was being tried in the courts.

Individual ministerial responsibility

Stepping aside from office while a minister is being charged is a critical ethical decision for the government. It is also expected accountable democratic practice. Taking leave from office while one’s case is on-going in the court is also one of the basic moral resources for individuals of integrity. This option reinforces integrity, responsibility and accountability. Ministers in office swear before the Sultan that they would live up to the obligation of the office.

Individual ministerial responsibility is a constitutional convention in governments that a cabinet minister bears the ultimate responsibility for the actions of their ministry. The accountable minister is expected to bear the responsibility if he is ever charged with a crime and step aside while his or her case is being dealt with in the court, but the government of which the minister is part, is not held to be answerable for that minister’s failure.

“New Malaysia” expects high ethical standards

It is the responsibility of all public officials to maintain a high ethical standard in order to effectively and honestly serve the people. In fact, to ensure the maintenance of high ethical standards, some countries have created an Executive Ethics Commission to which the Attorney General serves as an advisor. Typically, such a Commission receives complaints, conducts administrative hearings, prepares and publishes guides regarding the ethics laws, issues subpoenas, and makes rulings and recommendations in disciplinary cases. Importantly, an Executive Ethics Commission also has jurisdiction over the employees and officers of the Executive Branch of government. 

Malaysia does not yet have in place an Ethics Commission, nonetheless Government employees and elected officials have a responsibility to respect the law, act ethically and conduct their work in an open manner.  Meanwhile, ministers are expected to stepping aside from office while they are being charged for a crime in the court. This is expected accountable democratic practice. We are no longer living under a feudal system of patronage in which one’s own party or party boss decides what actions should follow. This option reinforces integrity, responsibility and accountability we expect in “New Malaysia”.

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