COMMENT Now that the Registrar of Societies (ROS) has removed Josie Fernandez as secretary-general of Transparency International Malaysia (TI-M),  the NGO appears to have temporarily suppressed the chaos created by the sudden departure of its president Paul Low.

NONELow resigned as president of TI-M, the Malaysian chapter of anti-graft NGO Transparency International, on May 24.

Nine days earlier, he had been appointed as premier Najib Abdul Razak's latest poster boy in the cabinet, in BN's unending and unconvincing battle on corruption.

Low saw nothing wrong in hopping from TI-M to the new ministerial portfolio for "transparency" in the prime minister's department, though this was in violation of TI-M's Conflict of Interest Code of Conduct and Revolving Door Policy regarding appointments outside TI-M.

Low's TI-M legacy
TI-M's executive committee, or exco, voted for Low loyalist Akhbar Satar as the new president over Fernandez, during the same exco meeting when Low announced his resignation. This election was held without an Extraordinary General Meeting or EGM.

Eight weeks later, on July 20, the exco relented under pressure from a handful of members worried about the society's reputation, and finally held an EGM.

Many of the attending TI-M voters were corporate members, recruited by Low during his tenure. Low had also been the former president of the Federation of Malaysian Manufacturers. A resolution for the exco to step down and for new elections to be held was defeated.

During the EGM, Loi displayed a certificate from the ROS, stating that Loi, and not Fernandez, was the secretary-general. The ROS later disavowed Loi's certificate, and kept Fernandez on as secretary-general.

On Sept 3, the ROS interrogated Fernandez for three hours at the ROS office, in response to a reported complaint to the ROS. The complaint and the source of the complaint were not revealed to Fernandez. The ROS finally confirmed Loi in the post on Sept 29.

The cosy relationship that Akhbar and Loi clearly share with the ROS raises obvious questions about TI-M's independence from the government. The soft landing provided for Akhbar and Loi by the ROS stood in marked contrast with the zeal shown by the ROS in insisting that the opposition DAP had to hold new party elections. 

Even before Low's resignation, TI-M's credibility had already been dented by a fanciful "election integrity pledge", signed by Najib and witnessed by Sarawak chief minister Abdul Taib Mahmud in February, shortly before a general election plagued by fraud and vote-buying in May.

Low also threw his support behind the hydroelectric power industry's world congress held in Kuching on May 21. The venue of the congress was a convention centre built and operated by Taib's family using taxpayers' money. When Sarawakians protested against the wasteful dams, organisers tried to keep them out of the congress venue.

Transparency International, TI-M's parent body based in Berlin, backed Low then, and have now backed Akhbar Satar and Loi. 

The umbrella organisation must now be dismayed that knowledgable members of Malaysia's NGO community are hard pressed to mention "Transparency and Integrity" and "TI-M" in the same breath without an ironic smile.

Critical and independent voice removed
Fernandez  provided a critical, independent and conscientious – and somewhat lonely – voice in TI-M. She had pushed for reforms in financing for political parties in Malaysia. 

She led a Forestry Governance and Integrity (FGI) programme, speaking out for Orang Asli land rights around Tasik Chini, in Najib's own parliamentary constituency. She coordinated TI's local anti-graft campaign in defence procurement, though she could not persuade Low to engage with Suaram and the Scorpene submarine scandal.

These prickly issues made Najib's sycophants uncomfortable. Fernandez condemned Low publicly for his subservience to Najib and Pemandu, Najib's economic steering body.

NONEThe new president, Akhbar Satar (right), is a former official of the MACC, an anti-graft government commission much maligned for being not only supine but under Najib's thumb.

He and the new exco laboured to remove Josie as a threat.

According to Fernandez, her TI-M email account was hacked into, and her files on the Annual General Meeting and other documents went missing. She was removed as secretary-general by the ROS and for good measure, thrown out of TI-M.

Fernandez told Malaysiakini that the exco exerted intense pressure on TI-M employees who had worked with her on the FGI programme, and had even confiscated a laptop used by one employee, in an unsuccessful attempt to find some financial irregularity within the FGI.

The exco, she said, were groping around for an excuse to dismiss her on disciplinary grounds. In the end, the exco terminated her membership on September 2 for "actions and conduct which the Exco deems to be against the interest [sic] of the society".

Fernandez argued that TI-M's treatment of her "impinges on the very core of what the society is meant to represent, namely, the observance of due process and transparency by decision-makers."

Highs and lows of Malaysian NGOs
This debacle teaches Malaysians the essential ingredients of a successful NGO. TI-M, Suara Rakyat Malaysia (Suaram) and Bersih 2.0 all have laudable objectives: to curb corruption, advance human rights and fight for free and fair elections, respectively.

Suaram and Bersih 2.0 began by working from the grassroots. They have engaged community organisations, regional groupings, the younger generation, social media and the mainstream press. They are fiercely independent, and publish widely. They also enlighten and educate through modestly sized workshops.

These two NGOs have intelligent, highly principled, fearless leaders. These leaders have endured hardship, imprisonment and harrassment for their work. They encourage younger, ambitious activists to inject life into these NGOs, and enlist members among ordinary citizens.

azlanSuaram's founders include Dr Kua Kia Soong and Dr Mohd Nasir Hashim, both detained for years under the ISA, as well as the late Fan Yew Teng, a prisoner of conscience held under the Sedition Act and other laws used to silence political opponents. Bersih 2.0 has been led by national poet laureate A Samad Said and Ambiga Sreenavasan, a former Bar Council president, as well as other leading lights of various professions.

TI-M, on the other hand, is now distancing itself from the human rights movement and the grassroots. It is dominated by corporate and conservative members. TI-M concentrates on media statements and powerpoint presentations, following the model of the ineffectual national human rights commission, Suhakam. Watchdogs should never be turned into lapdogs.

TI-M president Akhbar Satar could not even bring himself to mention Scorpene, when he recently announced Transparency International's global index that showed Malaysia has a "very high risk of graft" in defence procurement. 

Besides criminologist Akhbar, TI-M exco talent is represented by the likes of Rozni Hashim, who yelled hysterically at journalists when they gathered around Fernandez at a TI-M event in July, and Loi, who came running as if he was at a National Service boot camp, when Rozni screamed for him.

Malaysia's dedicated, highly motivated NGO activists have taken note of TI-M's shabby treatment of Josie Fernandez. Transparency International will keep its Malaysian chapter lurching along, but will now have to dredge an increasingly shallow talent pool.

KERUAH USIT is a human rights activist - ‘anak Sarawak, bangsa Malaysia'. This weekly column is an effort to provide a voice for marginalised Malaysians. Keruah Usit can be contacted atkeruah_usit@yahoo.com

~ Malaysiakini