Sunday, June 25, 2006

Witness Protection Programme - Too Glib, Too Dangerous!

Deputy Prime Minister Najib is now talking about a witness protection scheme for those who come forward with information for the Anti-Corruption Agency (ACA). Najib said the most important thing would be for the information to reach the agency accurately.

“The people do not have to be afraid. Come forward and pass us the details. The agency will protect them and not leak out the source of the information.”

Earlier Pahang ACA director Abdul Rahim Mustakain had claimed that people were scared to give information as the agency did not have any witness protection programme. He said that anonymous letters from the public would not be enough.

There are a few issues here that I want to comment on.

For a start, the public has little faith in the ACA. If you do not know why, then you must be new to Malaysia. Despite the assurance of the ACA, how do we know that if we provide information or evidence about a very powerful person, our role and information would be kept highly confidential?

Leaving that aside, a witness protection scheme is meant to ensure the safety of witnesses who provide evidence or information to the ACA or police on crimes or corruption, where such involvement would endanger the witnesses. The threat to witnesses could be during two phases: (1) before and during the trial of the criminal, and (2) after the trial.

The first instance would during the period when the authorities first persuade the witnesses to cooperate with the investigation into (or the witnesses voluntarily come forward with information of) the crimes (including corruption) until the completion of the trial because for sure those criminals would be out to silence the witnesses. I imagine this must be what the DPM has in mind.

The second case would be to protect the witnesses from the members or families of the criminals wanting revenge. This is the trickier and more difficult component of the scheme, assuming that the DPM has even thought about this aspect.

The witnesses may require a new identity and re-location. In some cases re-location in a foreign country may even be vital, and this would require some form of mutual arrangements with those countries. Just last year, Britain wanted to re-locate to Australia two child murderers who had grown up in prison. Those two kids had battered a third smaller child to death at a railway track after cold bloodedly luring him to the secluded spot.

While it wasn't a witness protection re-location it has the same elements of consideration. Australians were up in arms against that re-location of whom they saw as potential murderers. Are those two already in Australia? The Australian public till today isn't any wiser.

Once, a bloke, who was the organiser of a tontine, was forced to scoot off from my village because the scheme collapsed. Let me digress for a while onto the Malaysian tontine scheme to make a point related to the witness protection scheme.

The Malaysian (predominantly Chinese) village-style tontine has been different from the Western version but it’s based on a combination of needs, greed and completely unregulated system, meaning it's illegal for a start. However, if properly run, it serves some limited social-economic value in villages.

As a very simplified example of the Malaysian tontine, let's say the scheme has a member ship of 24 – mind you, the more the merrier as the pool of money would be bigger. The basic subscription is, for simplicity sake, say RM20.

If one needs money, then one bids for the pool of RM480 by closed tender. Say if one is desperate, one puts in RM2 as the offer of monthly 'interest'. If that is the highest and winning ballot, then the successful person grabs the RM480 for perhaps the anticipated expenses of Chinese New Year or the kids’ school books or the approaching marriage of a daughter.

The person then pays RM2 extra for every participating member each month until programme ends, which is bloody usurious. The members who didn’t take the pool benefit by RM2 per month, not including subsequent bids. The majority of members had been women because those poor ladies had been the ones managing the household expenses.

Of course I have provided a very simplified example, where the ‘interest’ has been monumentally high (it's actually less than my example but still bloody usurious), but it serves to illustrate who benefits from the scheme and who has to bear the burden of 'interests'. The actual models may be far more complex with sums ranging of RM 20 per month to many hundreds.

The organiser gets a cut of the monthly proceedings for his administrative efforts in collecting dues and organising the monthly tender, etc. The scheme is liable to collapse if (1) the manager scoots off with the pool, or (2) the members who had already taken the pool renege on payments.

Back to that bloke who absconded. Those who don’t bid at all would benefit most but also be highly exposed. I am not sure of the exact reason why he had absconded other than the scheme failed.

The whole village was after his blood, except of course those who had already successfully made use of the scheme. Apparently he had organised several schemes going on at the same time prior to his ‘disappearance’. He was doing so for several years.

Three years later I spotted him with his children in Jitra, Kedah when I stopped to buy the village's famous goreng pisang (fried bananas). He was at the same stall, and when he saw and recognised me, his face went pale. The bloke stood rock still, like a deer caught in the lights of an oncoming car.

I didn’t do anything but ignore him, though he knew that I recognised him. Afterall his kids were my village mates, whom I play with and attended school together for many years. No, I didn’t even tell my mum or anyone I saw him – what’s the point of persecuting him any further when his self re-location to Jitra was already a punishment? But I have no doubt after I left he would be packing up rapidly to re-locate. What a traumatic experience for his family!

I provided this example to show that re-locating witnesses under the witness protection scheme has to be carefully and thoughtfully worked out, or it would be a disaster of life-and-death proportion.

The other aspect related to this is of course the re-location may be to the witness' disadvantage. The new location could well be in a place where one’s profession may not be needed or schooling facilities for his/her children are wanting, etc. What about re-location expenses in terms of housing, travel, and appropriate compensation or even life long pension if the necessary re-location proves to be most disadvantageous to the unfortunate witness, etc? Would a witness be willing to exchange a life among his/her family and friends in Penang for a new life in Sempurna, Sabah, without the comforting familiar environment and support?

Then the government would have to legislate to make it an offence for anyone to attempt to contact the witness or publish any details which may lead to disclosing his/her whereabouts.

As an example of why this is necessary, there was case in Australia, though nothing to do with a witness protection programme, where a man after winning AUS$30 million dollars in a lottery, wisely disappeared with his family for security reasons. But a newspaper which specialises in publishing titillating sensations hunted his whereabouts down and then published the details without any regard for his security. There was no law to prevent that.

Then the most vital issue of all would be the absolute security of the new identity and whereabouts of re-located witnesses. Who manages it? In the USA, I believe it comes under a special exclusive unit of the Justice Department. How far can one trust the Malaysian system?

It’s all well and good for the DPM to say glibly that witnesses would be protected but let’s see more details, provisions for the witnesses beyond just security, and who would be running the scheme? The programme is a bit more involved than just draping a flag over an Egyptian pyramid, when that latter didn't even succeed.


  1. Why would we need another scheme ? Is it another way to siphon off the people’s money?

    The claim that the people “are scared to give information” is just an excuse to hide the almost total lack of action by the ACA. The people are only scared of the complete silence by the ACA on matters already reported to them.

    The famous Citizen Nades has handed over to the ACA numerous documents relating to what can be termed “corrupt practices” but what has happened ? Nothing!! But then of course, the ACA are not obliged to keep the complainant informed of what they are doing or what they have done.

    By the way, Citizen Nades has not asked for any protection even though he is keen to be a witness. Is there will to combat corruption or is this mere hogwash ?

  2. It won't work! The civil service is too corrupt!