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LAST_UPDATEMon, 23 Jul 2018 8pm

Council Of Eminent Persons – How Are They Doing Two Months In

Today marks two months since Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad announced the formation of the Council of Elders, now known as the Council of Eminent Persons (CEP), made up of Tun Daim Zainuddin, Tan Seri Zeti Akhtar Aziz, Tan Sri Hassan Marican, Robert Kuok and Prof Jomo Kwame Sundaram.

According to Dr Mahathir, the CEP is tasked to provide vital "knowledge or previous knowledge of administration" during the transition of power period seeing that most members in the new government have "little or no experience in running a government".

Meant to only be around for the first 100 days, the CEP will also look into and review the business dealings of the previous government, including 1Malaysia Development Berhad (1MDB).

Since its formation, the CEP was met with scepticism and criticism by various parties and as the role of the CEP seems to have reached beyond their initial purpose, Malaysian Digest takes a closer look at the role of the CEP 60 days into their job.

Some Politicians Are Apprehensive Of The CEP

In the early days of the CEP’s formation, MCA publicity spokesperson and religious harmony bureau chairman Datuk Seri Ti Lian Ker expressed his concern over the role of the CEP as well as the concerns over who the CEP will be answerable and accountable to.

“Despite the feel good factor and agreeing to the advisory role of the council, there are worries that the non-constitutional institution will be just like Pas Ulama Syura Council, which has the ultimate say with unlimited and unchecked powers...

“Although the intention of the Council is altruistic and the members are eminent, but will the scope of the Council be only to assist the newly elected Pakatan Harapan (PH) government to implement and deliver their 100 days promises?” he said, as reported by New Straits Times.

Ramkarpal Singh, Bukit Gelugor MP and DAP member, had also chided the CEP mid last month for interfering in the affairs of the judiciary after they summoned Chief Justice (CJ) Tun Md Raus Sharif and President of the Court of Appeal (PCA) Tan Sri Zulkefli Ahmad Makinudin, and allegedly demanded their resignation.

“It is a basic hallmark of any democracy that the executive does not interfere in the affairs of the judiciary.

“There is nothing wrong with criticising the appointment of the CJ and PCA, however, it is quite another matter to summon them and demand their resignations, this is plainly wrong,” Ramkarpal said in a statement, as reported by Malay Mail.

Meanwhile, UMNO Supreme Council member Datuk Lokman Adam told Malaysian Digest in no uncertain terms that the formation of the CEP is not constitutional.

“My view is simple, the formation of the CEP is clearly against the constitution as there are no provisions in the constitution that mentions their existence so their formation should have been tabled in Parliament before it was formed.

“I want to know what the role of the CEP is, under which provision were they formed and under what laws are they allowed to go through official government documents when they are not even civil servants,” he said.

He added that the involvement of the CEP in deciding on which projects should be continued or scrapped such as the East Coast Rail Link (ECRL) is also questionable.

“I see the CEP is doing business by jacking up prices for projects that purportedly would be cancelled i.e. the ECRL where they projected the cost to be RM81 billion instead of the initial RM55 billion and they later made a profit when the shares of the company which obtained the rights to carry out the project plunged.

“This is evident when Vincent Tan bought shares of the company, as he would not have bought them if he did not get inside information from the CEP, and he managed to enjoy 30% profit in just one week.

“This is not something that I think should have happened because the CEP seems to have been used to enrich certain individuals through insider trading/ inside information,” he argued, while adding that he does not see the CEP bringing any benefit to the people as whole.

Lokman is also sceptical of the CEP being dismantled after 100 days of its formation, despite what Dr Mahathir has said.

“Since when does Dr Mahathir keep his promises? Mark my words, CEP will still be there even after 100 days and the nation will be worst off because of it,” he concluded.

“Democracy Can Easily Be Dead If There Is No Law Governing Over The Council”

A legal practitioner, who wants to remain anonymous, on the other hand is slightly ambivalent on whether the appointment of the CEP into the executive branch is legal or not.

“It can be, provided their authorities, jurisdictions are properly and legally outlined as per the rule of law.

“But because their purpose, authorities and jurisdictions are not clear, then there is no telling what is illegal and legal for them — and hence, why they can serve as a threat,” he said.

Despite that, the lawyer with over 30 years of experience believes that the CEP do not actually threaten the nation's democracy.

“Tun Dr Mahathir and the Federal Government still have more power over them.

“While the Council has been making and heavily involved in business decisions/issues, they have yet to be involved in nationwide decision-making, or involved in Dewan Rakyat / Parliament and etc.,” he explained.

Pic: BernamaPic: Bernama

However, recent news of Tun Daim heading to China to renegotiate the terms and costs of the ECRL and the two projects under Suria Strategic Energy Resources Sdn Bhd (SSER) has had some people wondering why the CEP are given prominent roles when they are not even elected representatives.

But seeing that the CEP’s authorities and jurisdictions are not outlined, the lawyer said that there is no telling whether there are laws that limit or govern the extent of the CEP’s powers especially in undertaking tasks such as this.

Dr Mahathir defended Daim by saying that he is free to go to China to renegotiate the contracts and “he can give his advice, but I can reject it, if I want to,” Bernama reports.

Similarly, recent news of Tan Sri Zeti’s appointment as Permodalan Nasional Bhd (PNB) chairman throws into question the immediate operations of the CEP. However, she has reaffirmed her commitment to see through the duty she was tasked in the council.

"We're halfway through (our work). It's been about 50 days already," she told reporters after attending a CEP meeting last week.

Despite his certainty that the nation’s democracy is not in danger because of the CEP, he did caution on what could potentially happen seeing that there does not seem to be a check and balance system in place in regards to the CEP.

“Malaysia could potentially be governed by a group of elderlies who were not appointed by the rakyat, but by the government they voted for,” he warned.

“Democracy can easily be dead if there is no law governing over the council.”

CEP Only Assists The Government, Not Meant To Replace Cabinet

The formation of the CEP is completely a new territory in Malaysian politics as there never was a need for one in the past but Dr Wong Chin Huat, political scientist and fellow at the Penang Institute, does not believe that it will necessarily change the political landscape in Malaysia or set a precedent for future governments.

This, he explained, was because of the purpose of the formation of the CEP, which was mainly to tap into the wisdom, experiences and competence of unelected leaders (non-political except for Daim), and to assist the new government before the full Cabinet was formed seeing that many of the members would not have administrative experiences.

“The CEP is not a standing body and there is no reason for every government to appoint one.

“Certainly, if PH wins the next government, there is no need for another CEP for the reasons this one is appointed,” he said.

It seems this idea of an advisory council to provide oversight over the government of the day has also been adopted by the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS).

PAS secretary-general Datuk Takiyuddin Hassan was quoted by Bernama in announcing that the party is setting up its own government advisory council for Kelantan and Terengganu to ensure that their respective state governments can deliver on their recent election pledges.

“There will be several eminent persons with vast experience in the public sector as well as government officers with specific expertise, in the council.

“It will also comprise several PAS leaders and a panel of consultants to ensure that the party’s manifesto for GE14, which is aimed at improving people’s well-being can be implemented,” he said at a PAS Aidilfitri event last weekend.

Despite the question hanging over its legality, there is no shortage of Malaysian organisations turning to the CEP with pleas for intervention and action.

The National Union of Flight Attendants Malaysia (Nufam) had as recently as last week met with the CEP to air their greivances over staff sacking and losses incurred by national carrier, Malaysia Airlines (MAS) which they blame on "wastages, leakages and mismanagement".

The Malaysian Association of Hotels has also appealed to the CEP to consider removing the Tourism Tax imposed by the previous BN government which saw foreign tourists charged a flat rate of RM10 per room per night regardless of their hotel rating. Meanwhile, the association also appealed to the council to better regulate home-sharing such as Airbnb.

As the CEP were not elected by the people, some were concerned that their formation threatens the democracy of the country but Dr Wong counters that belief as he stressed that the Cabinet has the political power, not the CEP.

“The CEP is not meant to replace the Cabinet but only to assist them and the Cabinet certainly has the political power to reject any proposals from the CEP.

“At the end of the day, the final decision makers are the Cabinet and the Parliament which approves key decisions including budget, not the CEP. Therefore this does not pose a challenge to democracy,” concludes Dr Wong.

-mD