Let the Cabinet meeting tomorrow be a showdown over whether to give sanction to Attorney-General Apandi to draft amendments to increase penalties under the OSA to deter whistleblowers and journalists from combatting corruption, particularly grand corruption

Malaysians are aghast at the reaction of the Deputy Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Zahid Hamid who seemed to side with the Attorney-General Tan Sri Mohamad Apandi Ali who wants to amend the Official Secrets Act (OSA) to impose heavier punishments on whistleblowers and journalists to deter them from leaks to combat corruption, particularly grand corruption in Malaysia.

Zahid even slammed those who opposed and criticized Apandi for gunning for whistleblowers and journalists, accusing them of “trying to politicize” the Attorney-General’s interview with Sin Chew Daily where he announced proposals to increase penalties under the OSA 1972 to include life imprisonment and 10 strokes of the rotan to deter whistleblowers and journalists for leaking and publishing information about corruption.

Zahid said the Attorney-General’s decision should be respected, adding:

“The AG's agenda is to enforce the law and not to politicise an issue and be inundated with the politicised interpretation of the issue, and this should not be seen as a political issue by anyone, including the opposition.”

Zahid cannot be more wrong.

Apandi’s proposals should be pilloried and castigated to the maximum extent possible by all national stakeholders as they signal a dangerous lurch towards dictatorial rule in the country and go against everything that the Prime Minister, Datuk Seri Najib Razak, had promised when he became the sixth Prime Minister some seven years ago.

Is Zahid unaware of Najib’s pledge to make Malaysia “the best democracy in the world” and in particular, the Prime Minister’s statement in September 2011 about the “political transformation” his government was undertaking from the aspects of human rights because of “the increasing maturity of the people”.

Now that Zahid is the Deputy Prime Minister, it may be useful for him to read up on Najib’s various pledges and promises of reform he made in his first six years as Prime Minister.

One of the Ministers whom Zahid should consult on the Attorney-General’s announcement is the Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department in charge of integrity and good governance, Datuk Paul Low, who said yesterday that whistleblowers who expose corruption or fraud should be given protection, like exemption from prosecution in the OSA.

A week ago, Tunku Makhota of Johore Tunku Ismail Sultan Ibrahim suggested that removing a few ministers who are considered “a joke” was the first step to improving the administrative system.

In his Facebook post, Tunku Ismail wrote: “Our country needs intelligent ministers who can serve the people, not to serve their own pockets. I pray that our political situation in this country and the education system will improve for the benefit of the people.”

I thought of TMJ’s post when I read the comments of some Ministers to the Attorney-General’s outrageous proposals.

One Minister said that there is no “absolute freedom” in this world be it for members of the public or members of the media, when supporting Apandi’s proposals to amend the OSA for stiffer penalties for whistleblowers and journalists who report news based on leaked documents.

This is one of the dumbest statements ever made by a Minister.

As far as I know, no one had ever advocated “absolute freedom” in Malaysia.

I challenge this Minister to cite chapter and verse as to who had ever advocated “absolute freedom” in Malaysia?

I would refer this Minister and all Cabinet Ministers to my speech in Parliament 36 years ago in October 1979 when I advocated amendments to the OSA by cutting back on its “catch-all” provisions which provided criminal penalties to protect all government information from disclosure, by the enactment of a Freedom of Information Act to require the government to make records available to the public except in cases of national security or personal information.

It is a pure figment of imagination of Ministers that those who advocate an open and democratic government and the enactment of a Freedom of Information Act are demanding “absolute freedom”, and it is sad and pathetic that after nearly six decades of parliamentary democracy, there are Ministers who are not “intelligent” enough to understand that the arguments for open, accountable and democratic governance are not arguments for “absolute freedom”.

The statement by this Minister that other countries don’t have breaches of secrecy is even more startling, confirming the Tunku Ismail’s pungent criticism that Malaysia needs “intelligent ministers”.

Another minister’s comment on the same issue falls into the lament by Tunku Makhota Johor about the need to have “intelligent” Ministers.

This Minister said that Apandi’s proposal to review the penalty under the OSA proves that the leakage of government secrets is becoming more serious, and that such acts can jeopardise national security.

Can this Minister explain how the leakage of Najib’s world-class RM2.6 billion “donation” and RM55 billion 1MDB twin mega scandals could “jeopardise national security”?

Apandi and these Ministers have completely missed the real point at issue, that the problem the country is facing is not the increase in the leakage of government information but the rise in corruption and the increase in severity and scale of mega scandals which have given Malaysia the bad name of being third in the world’s “worst corruption scandals in 2015” and caused Malaysia to plunge four places to No. 54 in the Transparency International (TI) Corruption Perception Index (CPI) 2015 as compared to No. 50 last year.

What a patriotic Attorney-General and Ministers should be concerned about is Malaysia’s deterioration in the TI CPI, especially when the Malaysian government had once failed its earlier target to rank the country among the top 30 least corrupt countries in 2008 under the National Integrity Plan, and is likely to fail a second time under the latest National Transformation Programme objective of being among the top 30 countries of TI CPI by 2020.

Instead of being concerned about Malaysia’s backsliding in the battle against corruption, which is one of the six National Key Result Areas (NKRA) of the National Transformation Programme, the Attorney-General and the Ministers are instead obsessed with Najib’s twin mega scandals.

Instead of ensuring full and satisfactory accountability for the twin mega scandals to prevent any future recurrence, the Attorney General and the Prime Minister are doing their utmost to ensure that such mega scandals could not be exposed in the future!

Apandi may have Najib’s full blessings to tinker with the OSA to increase penalties to deter whistleblowers and journalists from combatting grand corruption in government, but has the Attorney-General the sanction and authority of the Cabinet to go down such an undemocratic and dangerous path?

The Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Azalina Othman has accused the PKR MP for Pandan, Rafizi Ramli of being so afraid of the proposed OSA amendments that he is starting an online campaign to stop it.

Azalina said that rather than taking his campaign online, Rafizi should debate the issue in Parliament if the amendments to the law were tabled in the Dewan Rakyat.

But before the battle for an open and democratic government as well as for integrity in public life is waged in Parliament, the proposed OSA amendments must first pass the Cabinet line.

The Cabinet meeting tomorrow should stop Apandi in its tracks and send a clear message that he does not have the sanction or authority of the Cabinet to draft amendments to the OSA to increase penalties to punish whistleblowers and journalist for leaking or reporting information about corruption, fraud or other malpractices in government.

Let the Cabinet meeting tomorrow be a showdown between those who want an open, incorruptible and democratic government and those who do not mind worsening corruption in Malaysia but want a more draconian OSA and other repressive laws to deter whistleblowers and journalists from exposing corruption and mega scandals, in particular grand corruption, in public affairs.

Paul Low, who joined Cabinet in May 2013 to promote integrity and good governance, must take a stand.

If he cannot get the Cabinet tomorrow to send out a clear message that the Attorney-General has no Cabinet sanction or authority to draft amendments to the OSA to punish whistleblowers and journalists for information leaks to combat corruption, particularly grand corruption, he and other like-minded Ministers should submit their resignation from the Cabinet to strike a critical blow for the battle for integrity, accountability and good governance in Malaysia.

Lim Kit Siang DAP Parliamentary Leader & MP for Gelang Patah