The Public Ombudsman, a Summary: Make Justice the Default

One key trait of Malaysia’s “internal regulatory attempts” is their rapid expiration date: they launch with obvious defects and limited powers.

How the Public Ombudsman, Peguambela Rakyat, Works

  1. A Public Ombudsman is an investigation and enforcement body outside the Executive to ensure the Executive is legal, efficient, and fair. It includes a powerful whistleblower protection unit; a fierce public interest litigation unit; a national school & children’s case unit. 
  2. It is immune to the ancient tricks of misconduct: it severs cables with no public service officers (e.g., external hiring); it has disciplinary, restorative, punitive, and legal jurisdiction; its funding is a set % of the Federal Budget; penalties based on an officer's salary; its top panel is publicly nominated, debated and elected; its timeline is legally enforceable; its final resolutions are public; it is publicly audited by a non-government firm; it receives anonymous reports; its history of cases are open for media review. 

The Fastest, Widest Impacts

  1. Each month, Malaysia’s enforcement agencies, media, and politicians are alerted to the simmering mass of injustices in 100s of districts and dozens of Ministries: paedophile teachers, burning hospitals, absent teachers, abused healthcare workers, corrupt enforcement officers, thousands (or billions) in leakages. We in the public service know our top officers can effortlessly hide scandals much faster than anyone can expose us.
  2. But we ordinary public servants are the victims. Yet, we are also the catalysts and beneficiaries if we are protected and can testify in independent proceedings. We are in every Ministry, we number in the millions, we have eyes on every inch of government. Yet, we whistleblowers can only effect change with independent investigations and independent enforcement. Today, most disciplinary commissions are made up of former public servants of the very same Ministry. Thus, today’s “independent” enforcement is a dangerous farce.
  3. Whistleblowers make outsized impacts on low-power communities including B40, Sabah, Sarawak, and rural areas that have little legal, media, or CSO oversight. Best yet, a Public Ombudsman does not rely on new laws nor regulations. It simply enforces current laws without the commonplace discrimination, unfairness, and illegality.

The Simple, Intuitive Solution

  1. Internal investigations have collapsed nationwide and public servants are the first victims. Internal promotions mean internal investigations incentivize public servants to slow or thwart investigations. Self-preservation becomes the ultimate goal: superior officers are not legitimate investigators. They may be guilty of the same scandal yet as investigators are cleared; they may have negligent oversight; they may fear the perpetrator; they may depend on perpetrators’ allies for day-to-day work. In humiliating scandals, superior officer “investigators” are  an anti-transparency, anti-rakyat, anti-justice get out of jail free card. 
  2. A Public Ombudsman, with external investigators, drops calcified enforcement structures. It allows rapid, independent, and transparent enforcement of current laws and regulations. With enforceable timelines and independence from the Executive, we reset Malaysia’s future. And, a Public Ombudsman reduces burdens on politicians, the Courts, and the public service to self-investigate or “interfere” in complex matters without access nor efficiency.
  3. Today, politicians have built ineffective, third-rate band-aids–also known as proper channels–to mitigate and prop-up abuse of power in the public service. We have “external” commissions, committees, oversight boards, compromised “enforcement” agencies, constituency allocations, and even “go summon the government to claim your rights”. To the rich and powerful, the Courts are accessible. That is why most politicians and elites have little urgency with Malaysia’s failures; they have always had independent investigations & independent enforcement.

Not Another Bucket With Holes

  1. Imagine Malaysia’s enforcement mechanisms as buckets filled by whistleblowers, witnesses, evidence, and victims. If a bucket is filled, disciplinary or criminal action is taken against all responsible. However, Malaysia’s buckets have holes from the factory, e.g., MACC Act, Whistleblower Protection Act, Child Act. All have weaknesses: Executive appointments, no enforceable timelines, no vicarious liability, can be stymied by the Attorney General, internal investigations and enforcement, no restorative provisions, and worst yet: weak transparency.
  2. For public servants, depending on political appointees for accountability is an ignoble and humiliating reality. Instead, a Public Ombudsman has full investigative powers including evidence seizure, raids, witnesses, whistleblower protection, and time-limited demands. Its appointments are made outside the Executive Branch, its finances are firewalled against political interference, its design is transparent–these are obvious solutions, yet have never been implemented by our own “representatives” in decades. 
  3. A Public Ombudsman ensures triage, whereby the worst affected receive the most attention instead of simply those with the loudest microphones at the largest media outlets. A Public Ombudsman ensures restorative justice, so that victims are compensated and not mere witnesses, with fair restitution. A Public Ombudsman can take punitive (compounds) or disciplinary action with final resolutions made public for key oversight by media & CSOs. A Public Ombudsman can even summon the Government in public interest litigation.

Make History: Special Powers

  1. One key trait of Malaysia’s “internal regulatory attempts” is their rapid expiration date: they launch with obvious defects and limited powers. That leads to public failures and inevitable disregard for the institution. Right on cue, when corrupt public servants realise they can violate the law and still remain as public servants, abuse of power becomes national culture. 
  2. Thus, a Public Ombudsman must be prepared to triage our worst failures. First, it must have an unimpeachable and aggressive whistleblower protection unit. Without whistleblowers, there is no ground truth on all policies and Ministries, nor any urgency or even measurement of reform. All disciplinary / civil / criminal cases are jeopardised without this whistleblower protection. Next, the Public Ombudsman must have a public interest litigation unit to file summons against systematic, long-term, and / or egregious misconduct by the Executive Branch. B40 communities should not need to fundraise litigation to force our taxpayer-fed government to follow our laws, as executed by 1.6m public officers. 
  3. Further, the Ministry of Education presents an enormous legal liability to the Government with over 10,000 schools and yet it is one of the most corrupt in some states. Further, children are a protected class (the Child Act) in Malaysia and any abuse of power can create generational poverty, generational failures, and generational instability. Thus, a specific unit that investigates misconduct in schools with child-sensitive units is an absolute requirement.

Justice Creates Unforgettable Legacies of Unity

  1. Malaysia’s humble citizens are pining for justice, accountability, and an honest system. Decades of misconduct, “internal enforcement”, and humiliating scandals have yielded a people quite afraid and quite distrustful of “their” government. Many Malaysians are victims, yet too afraid to come forward to tell their story after the government has silenced protests, silenced whistleblowers, and protected the corrupt. But, we all are ready for the downfall of the corrupt: it is the national dream of Malaysians. Why should we not be a leader in anti-corruption?
  2. A Public Ombudsman then highlights our homegrown heroes by removing the shackles of the “anti-corrupt” that have spent decades in fear of publicly destroying corruption. For example, shouldn’t teacher whistleblowers be provided state honours? Shouldn’t misconduct be publicly exposed in the media after disciplinary action has been taken? Shouldn’t documentaries be made about the rakyat tearing down government corruption? Shouldn’t we demand the Ombudsman to be a truly public institution?
  3. Some Public Ombudsman offices become more popular than the governments they monitor. That is because they worked to make justice the default, not the promise.


"The culture of fear for speaking up must end.”

Sepilok, Sabah | by Colin + Meg ⤤ on Unsplash ⤤