by Mark Lall Shimpi
Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad has explained that the term of the Council of Eminent Persons (“the Council”) could very well extend beyond the current government’s first 100 days in office.
Speaking to reporters, he said, “They think they have come to the end […] but I haven’t decided. I never said it is 100 days […] no, I still need their services.”
First, let us call a spade a spade: Mahathir had, in fact, stated on May 12 that the term of the council would be for 100 days: “This council will only be around for 100 days,” he said at a press conference after chairing Pakatan Harapan's presidential council meeting.
Dr M’s statement at the time was also in-line with the press release issued, which read: “The team will assist in shaping up policies and programmes to achieve the 100-day promises that Pakatan Harapan had made to the people. Thus the lifespan of this team will be 100 days."
Given the above, Dr M, let's not mince words; the truth of the matter is you did announce a time horizon for the council. To today claim otherwise is at best a failure of memory and at worst, a bald-faced lie.
Neither is it particularly becoming, particularly so as Malaysians have entrusted you, along with your esteemed colleagues in Harapan, to chart a new path forward for the country. To take on such a task - and discharge it well - requires as much eminence and storied prior expertise as it does a sense of responsibility and accountability.
In an era of resurgent, demagogic and unbecoming leadership across many nations, vigilance and transparency remain the antidotes to such mockery of the people’s rights and their intelligence. See also the prior government’s tactics, which the current government is always eager to put itself in contrast to.
Having dispensed with the factual record, let me state categorically - I have little interest in questioning the possibility of prerogative of the prime minister.
I also acknowledge that compared to other arrangements, at least we have the formal construct of a council, rather than unnamed and shadowy advisers to the prime minister that are otherwise unknown to the Malaysian public.
All the same, we know that prerogative, even for the head of state, is not infinite and must instead be exercised in dialogue with other norms and principles.
The record to-date shows we have been met with we have a hodgepodge of explanations as to the council's role - a vacuous initial press statement and a smattering of replies and commentaries from esteemed ministers and members of Parliament. Yet we still lack a canonical terms of reference or similar document that sets out, for the record and for all to see, the remit and limits of the council's role - much less howsoever long the body intends to remain constituted.
Such practice is far from professional, and instead suggests a mockery of good, responsible governance. Malaysians of 2018 are owed respect, through clarity of actions, not obfuscation. The people deserve to know the limits of the council's authority and manner in which members of the council are to conduct their business, regardless of how important and esteemed their prior or current positions and service to society were.
The concern is all the more pressing in the light of the prior government's failings and inconsistencies that today’s government continues to have no issue dredging up and deploying in the absence of firmer political capital; if ever there was a case of the pot calling the teapot black, it is now.
Pakatan Harapan versus Barisan Nasional
All of the above in mind, I therefore call upon Dr M, the council and those in a position to speak wise counsel to both, to formalise this institution of the council, including its temporal limitations, so as to preserve and re-affirm the importance of rule of law, amidst what all of us will readily acknowledge is a monumental transition for our beloved nation — and to do so for the generations to come, which we are always laying the groundwork for.
Whether you see it fit to decide this by decree or subject it to Parliamentary oversight, at the very least, hold the actions of the council accountable to something more tangible and fleshed out than has been the case to-date.
Some will argue my concerns are pedantic. They will argue that to focus on codification would rob the Council and its supporters of time spent getting on with its work. If you are in this camp, I put it to you: what concerns you so much about putting pen to paper and formalising—if not institutionalising—a body that to date has operated in the proverbial twilight zone?
Eminent persons they may be; angels they are not, and accordingly, such "auxiliary" precautions, the least of which may be codifying the council's terms of reference, is simply the responsible thing to do. If the council and Dr M to take such an affirmative step, it will hardly be looked upon unfavourably, even if it is not the path most easily taken. The good times are an opportunity to strengthen adherence to rule of law and institutions; do not take them for granted.
Still others will contend that were anything formalised regarding the council’s duties, it would prove problematic if somehow necessary to contravene; that the uniqueness of this watershed moment in Malaysian politics dictates that we cannot know ahead of time what duties the council may need to perform. To then circumscribe their remit, through a terms of reference or similar formal document, may create unnecessary future headaches.
To this, I say simply we need not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Choose to operate in a realm of accountability, over one that is beyond reproach. The latter is not always a slippery slope, but the logic of prerogative is an insufficient mechanism to explain and justify it. Operate instead on the principle that it is always the right time to claim the mantle of accountability and professionalism— and frankly, responsibility.
At worst, if such action is taken and there remain those that take issue with your practice (which there certainly will be!), at least then you can argue on the basis of a written principles which is not the case now.
And thus, to the Pakatan leaders, I say unequivocally: Thank you for your services to date which is by many measures proving a test of your ideals and desires for our nation.
You may not be able to accomplish everything in your manifesto, much less the promises for the first 100 days: but please do not sacrifice accountability and professionalism in the process. Those watching expect better of you, and we hope that you can continue to rise to the occasion.