Malaysia

Rafizi’s ‘NOW’ centre to make whistleblowing Malaysian culture

By Clara Chooi
August 30, 2012

Rafizi and NOW director Akmal Nasir (right) pose outside the centre’s entrance during an interview with The Malaysian Insider. — Pictures by Saw Siow FengRafizi and NOW director Akmal Nasir (right) pose outside the centre’s entrance during an interview with The Malaysian Insider. — Pictures by Saw Siow FengKUALA LUMPUR, Aug 30 ― PKR’s “exposé man” Rafizi Ramli will launch his latest pet project today ― the National Oversight and Whistleblowers Centre or “NOW” ― a non-profit outfit to encourage whistleblowers come forward at a time when public confidence in government agencies has reached an all-time low.

Rafizi told The Malaysian Insider that NOW will be a “civil society alternative” to government authorities like the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) and the police, whose reputations have been marred by numerous reports of custodial deaths as well as assault and intimidation by armed officers.

“Malaysians have been spooked from coming forward, but whistleblowing should become a culture in Malaysia, and that is what we hope to create,” he said in an exclusive interview.

Rafizi explained that the centre will prepare a step-by-step process for whistleblowing, which will include offering advice to informants on the legal risks they may face with their disclosures should they agree to proceed.

By providing a support structure for potential informants, the NOW centre aims to make whistleblowing a part of local culture.By providing a support structure for potential informants, the NOW centre aims to make whistleblowing a part of local culture.Each facet of the disclosures must be thoroughly vetted, he said, from the credibility of the whistleblower to the validity of the documents provided, as well as a deeper probe into the case to uncover sufficient evidence before anything is revealed in public.

But the final step in the process ― publicly disclosing the scandal through the media ― is the stickiest of all, Rafizi admitted, as it would immediately open himself, the centre and the whistleblower to legal risks, if any law was broken in the process of investigation.

The country’s sole whistleblower law ― the Whistleblower Protection Act 2010 (WPA) ― only offers protection to whistleblowers if they make a “disclosure of improper conduct” to an authorised enforcement agency.

As it does not accord protection to whistleblowers who go to the media, NOW’s system will likely result in a mountain of lawsuits and prosecutions in court.

“That is why we need some funds raised for legal fees. Most probably, we will be sued left, right [and] centre,” Rafizi said.

Rafizi is experiencing the lack of whistleblower protection firsthand.Rafizi is experiencing the lack of whistleblower protection firsthand.The PKR chief strategist himself currently faces two court charges for his exposés on the RM250 million National Feedlot Centre (NFC) cattle farming scandal, after he disclosed confidential financial documents to the media.

“But we have to do it and take the risk. After all, the law is such that if you lodge a report with the MACC, for example, you have to submit all your evidence to them and you cannot speak to anyone else or go to anyone else.

“If the MACC actually functions well, we would not need NOW. But does it?” he questioned.

“So at this point, what we have are two choices: Either we live and work within the current framework of the WPA, which is used to suppress whistleblowing, or we prove to and convince the society that whistleblowing is actually good for the country.

“We can show them that there is a support system from the non-governmental organisations and the civil society movement to hopefully increase pressure on the government to amend the Act,” he said.

Rafizi said another provision in the WPA renders the intention of the Act useless ― it stipulates that a whistleblower cannot break any other law when making his disclosure to the authorities.

“So if the documents disclosed are confidential, even if you are revealing them to the authorities, you have no protection,” he said.

This is reflected in Rafizi’s NFC court case, where he was charged for violating Section 97 of the Banking and Financial Institutions Act (Bafia) for exposing the confidential banking details of the National Feedlot Corporation (NFCorp), the firm that runs the NFC project.

But the politician is determined to push forward with NOW, saying the centre must serve as a civil society movement to help spread awareness of the importance of whistleblowing as a “Malaysian culture” and increase pressure on the government to move legislative reforms.

On this note, the politician said another primary objective of NOW was to be a legislative reform lobbyist and an “oversight” centre to make parliamentarians, governments and government-linked companies accountable for their actions.

Whistleblowing, he said, was only 50 per cent of the centre’s main work.

“We need a centre like this now because if we rely on the government, we will continue to be stagnant. And the best way is to take the civil society route to it,” he said.

He pointed out that it was through decades of pressure from civil society movements that the government finally agreed to repeal the controversial British-enacted Internal Security Act 1960, which allows for detention without trial.

“It has worked before. In this case, we want to change the way society views whistleblowing so that maybe five or six years down the road, there will be enough public pressure that no government can actually ignore it,” he said.

On NOW’s aim for accountability, Rafizi said the centre will focus on “parliamentary oversight work”, which includes monitoring the performance of MPs in the House, how they spend their allocations, and the implementation of laws on the ground once they are passed in Parliament.

He said NOW will also publish an annual Whistleblower Index to assess which areas or industries in the country needs rectification.

Rafizi wants for NOW to grow beyond whistleblowing, and to engender what he calls “legislative activism”.Rafizi wants for NOW to grow beyond whistleblowing, and to engender what he calls “legislative activism”.This, added Rafizi, was where he hoped the public’s perception that NOW is a politically partisan centre will change.

“What we will do is to track the performances of each MP in Parliament ― how many times he has spoken, what issues he has taken up and so on. This may be embarrassing, even for some of our representatives in Pakatan Rakyat (PR) but it must be done so they will be mindful that they hold their seats for a reason... it is a form of KPI,” he said.

Rafizi said the centre will also track and detail in reports how these MPs spend their parliamentary allocations on the ground and make public disclosures.

“Finally, when a law is passed in the House, we must report on how it is being implemented and what is the effect. Here, we hardly have what I call legislative activism.

“But it is important because many people do not understand these legislative processes and do not know how it affects their lives,” he said.

Without “oversight”, Rafizi said no one would be aware of whether the intention of a law is actually being implemented on the ground.

“Perhaps when we issue our reports, some MPs or leaders may throw it away but we are putting out the information in the public sphere, and do not forget, society is more alert today than they were before,” he said.

As an example, Rafizi pointed out that in the past, although the Auditor-General’s Report has been issued annually, not many had paid much attention to its contents.

“But when someone pushes a public agenda to it, then public awareness goes up and the stakeholders will have no choice but to be accountable to it.

“And this is NOW’s function,” he said.

But Rafizi also admitted that his role as NOW’s executive director may render it difficult for the centre to shake off the perception that its functions are political in nature.

The NOW Centre is believed to be the first of its kind in southeast Asia.The NOW Centre is believed to be the first of its kind in southeast Asia.He insisted that NOW has no political agenda, adding that he would do everything in his ability to ensure that no PR party ― PKR, PAS or DAP ― would use the centre as its own political tool to target leaders from Barisan Nasional (BN).

“We are very mindful of that,” he said, adding that in a few years, he hoped to relinquish his role in the centre to a non-partisan individual.

Rafizi added that after a few months of its launch, he hoped to put together a panel of advisers to oversee NOW’s functions.

The team, he said, must include leaders from across the political divide, as well as civil society representatives.

“Our dream is not about political exposés, it is not about merely whistleblowing on political scandals... there are bigger issues ― environmental, health, safety concerns... things that affect all of us on so many levels.

“Life is not just about politics,” he said.

NOW currently has a four-member team including Rafizi and is expected to commence interviews for volunteers soon, shortly after its launch today.