​From activist to antigraft chief: Latheefa Koya looks to rebuild trust in Malaysian institutions

28 October 2019 00:00

Latheefa Koya's life took a sudden twist when she was asked by Malaysia's prime minister to head up the country's anticorruption agency. After accepting the job — a call of duty she felt compelled to answer — she got her feet under the desk in June and is now just over four months into her two-year term.

In an exclusive interview, she told MLex about her hopes that the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission would work to tackle the root causes of graft and rebuild trust in the country's institutions, and her life-changing move from her role as a human rights lawyer to being the nation's top anti-graft official.

"In terms of my learning curve, it's very steep," she said, seated seated at a dining table at one end of her office at the agency's headquarters in Putrajaya. "Every day is something new."

Latheefa took the job in June after the MACC's former chief, Shukri Abdull, stepped down nearly a year before his term was due to end.

Before taking the helm at the MACC, Latheefa was the director of Malaysian human rights organization Lawyers for Liberty and a highly regarded human rights lawyer.

She said her MACC appointment was never part of any plans she had made, and that it came as something of a surprise when Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad personally tapped her on the shoulder.

"I'm just wondering whether I did the right thing, but I didn't have a choice," she said. "It was very difficult to say no because it's a situation where people said, 'This is your chance. You've been fighting on the streets, you've been protesting, so now you've been given a chance to try to fix things so why don't you try it?'."

"How do you answer that? Would I have regretted saying no and watching someone else doing it and saying, 'No, that's not how you do it'?'," she said.

Settling into the role, however, has taken a bit of adjusting.

"I have lost all my freedom, basically. I can't speak freely because now [I'm] a public servant," she said. "You have to be very careful what you say. If you want to make any recommendation, I can't do it over Twitter or Facebook, which I used to do."

She said handling the transition from being a human rights activist and lawyer to entering the civil service involved altering her thinking slightly.

"For me, when you see the corruption, I'm able to reconcile the fact if you do not fight against corruption, people are going to be denied their basic rights," she said.

Preventing corruption, rebuilding trust

As well as altering her own outlook, she hopes to do the same for the agency, prioritizing corruption prevention and rebuilding trust in state institutions.

Latheefa said she just wanted to make things "slightly different," and focus on other ways of reducing corruption, "not so much having a KPI of arresting and having X number of charges to show that we were successful."

She said she wanted to make more use of the agency's inspection and consultation unit, which has the power to inspect an organization's policies and procedures and recommend changes. She said that could be done instead of, or parallel to, criminal investigations.

For example, she said the MACC frequently arrested officers from the Road Transport Department for demanding bribes for approving vehicle inspections and similar services.

"It doesn't really help if you get hundreds of enforcement officers in jail," she said. "What you need to do is [ask], 'Why is it happening?'. So we need to then meet the Road transport Department and do a thorough consultation and recommend changes."

She said she was also keen to continue focusing on the country's government integrity unit program, under which all Malaysian government-linked companies and government departments are required to host MACC "integrity officers."  She has said previously that those officers would help the agency to identify perpetrators of corruption more effectively and investigate wrongdoing more efficiently, thanks to the officers' inside understanding of the workings of those organizations.

But if Latheefa wants to move away from traditional indicators of law enforcement agency performance, how can her achievements be measured?

"I need to be able to show a tangible reduction in bribery," she said. "When I say tangible, it doesn't mean a drop in cases. Cases could have been dropped for various reasons. So it has to be a serious sense of trust from someone who goes into that particular organization and says, 'You can't bribe anybody there'."

Political perils

Anticorruption agencies around the world have from time to time found themselves under pressure by politicians who feel threatened by their graft-fighting efforts.

The MACC's Indonesian counterpart, the Corruption Eradication Commission, or KPK, is the latest agency to have had its wings clipped.

"I think they were too effective," Latheefa said.

She is all too aware, however, that her agency was in a similar predicament just a few years ago.

"We did go through that dark time," she said.

After the MACC, which doesn't have prosecution powers, began investigating corruption allegations surrounding state fund 1 Malaysia Development Berhad and subsidiary SRC International, its probe was shut down in 2016 by then-Attorney General Mohamed Apandi Ali, a political ally of former Prime Minister Najib Razak. Apandi cleared Najib of any wrongdoing in the 1MDB case, and the head of the MACC at the time, Abu Kassim Mohamed, left shortly thereafter.

"So the KPK is probably going through something like that, except that theirs is worse because there is a law that is being passed," she said. "The president has got the veto power to stop this, so it all depends on Jokowi," she said, referring to Indonesian President Joko Widodo by his ubiquitous nickname. "We, on the other hand, have got full support from the government."

Najib was ousted from power after a general election in May 2018. His defeat ended more than 60 years of rule by the Barisan Nasional, a coalition led by the United Malays National Organisation.

Taking its place, the Pakatan Harapan coalition government, with Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamed at its head, has set out a radical reform agenda. Latheefa said that Mahathir remained interested in fighting corruption and eradicating the country's reputation as a kleptocracy.

"The prime minister himself is taking a direct interest in corruption," she said. "You will see practically every step of the way in his speeches he will speak about anticorruption measures."

Yet the MACC's past run-ins with politics isn't something Latheefa can shrug off easily.

Even her own appointment was labelled political by some after she was hand-picked by Mahathir in a process the government had promised to end. Prior to joining the MACC, Latheefa was also a long-time member of Parti Keadilan Rakyat, or PKR, the largest party in the coalition government. She said, however, that, even though she left the PKR immediately upon accepting her MACC job, she was already taking more of a "back seat" in the party and that she hadn't been given any conditions or directions by Mahathir.

Furthermore, going after the former prime minister, who is currently on trial, has inevitably prompted some to say that his prosecution is a political one.

Latheefa said, however, that during her time in charge at the MACC she was looking to establish the independence of the agency.

"We need to understand that we have to stop being used as a political tool," she said. "It's not easy. Every statement we make, every case we do, we're bound to be attacked as having some political motive."

Challenges ahead

The road ahead presents several challenges, with so-called "big fish" politicians to investigate and more funds looted from 1MDB to recover from around the world.

One particular challenge is securing the return of Low Taek Jho, commonly known as Jho Low, the Malaysian businessman at the heart of the 1MDB scandal, who is on the run and rumored to be hiding in China.

Latheefa declined to comment on the latest developments in his case.

However, when asked what it would mean if he wasn't brought to face justice in Malaysia, she said: "For me, he is just one of the many characters that played a part. Of course, if you get him back, you'll get more in details [on] where the properties are stashed away.

"But in terms of who is the culprit, we already have the accused in court, so I think I wouldn't say that without Jho Low we can't proceed," she said, seemingly referring to Najib, who, like Jho Low, has denied any wrongdoing. "So it's an issue of whether they want to look like they are innocent and Jho Low is all to be blamed — that's another angle that the defense have tried to project, but the point is who calls the shots? Who is the one that has the authority? Who appointed Jo Low? So that's what's happening in court, so I'll stop right there because that's an ongoing trial," she said.

Having been a vocal public figure previously, Latheefa is comfortable handling the press attention the role brings. But overseeing and investigating high-profile corruption cases — especially one as big as 1MDB — is a daunting task. The huge responsibility she shoulders is something she feels acutely.

"I don't think I can switch off, so I count my days like I've been sentenced to two years," she jokes.

"It's a duty. I can't enjoy this. Really. You are literally thinking about the country at night. You can't sleep."

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