S’wak Ombudsman Bill: Public empowered to report maladministration, ombudsman given investigative power

Awang Tengah tables Sarawak Ombudsman Bill, 2023 in Sarawak Legislative Assembly (DUN) sitting on Nov 20, 2023.

By Karen Bong

KUCHING, Nov 20: The proposed Sarawak Ombudsman Bill 2023 will allow the public to report maladministration by the Sarawak public service agencies to the ombudsman, who would be given broad investigative powers, including compelling witnesses to provide information, produce documents, arrest, and conduct search and seizure.

In tabling the Bill during the Sarawak Legislative Assembly (DUN) Sitting today, Deputy Premier Datuk Amar Awang Tengah Ali Hasan said that establishing Sarawak’s very own law on ombudsman will provide independent oversight on the performance of the State public service agencies, which encompasses the State Civil Service, local authorities, statutory bodies, and government-linked companies.

“The Sarawak Ombudsman will ensure fairness, transparency and accountability in their service delivery, which is essential for Sarawak to progress towards becoming a developed state by 2030,” he said.

Awang Tengah pointed out that the Sarawak Ombudsman will be led by a Chief Ombudsman and a Deputy Chief Ombudsman, along with three to five other Ombudsmen who possess relevant expertise or experience to ensure its effectiveness.

“The Head of State will appoint these Ombudsmen, and they will take an oath of office for a maximum term of three years, with the possibility of reappointment. This is a clear manifestation of our commitment to maintain integrity and ensure that State public service agencies provide a high-quality service to the rakyat.

“The Sarawak Ombudsman’s office will be managed by the Chief Administrator, who the Minister appoints from among the members of the State Public Service, and he is to be assisted by such number of officers. The Ombudsman staff and others acting on their behalf are immune from civil and criminal proceedings in the discharge of their official duties,” he told the august House.

Awang Tengah elaborated that the purpose of this Bill is to give the Ombudsman the power to resolve complaints, including dismissing any baseless and frivolous complaint; recommend corrective or preventive action to be taken by the State public service agency; monitor the implementation of the recommendation made by the ombudsman; and prepare and publish reports relating to the maladministration in the State public service agency.

Additionally, the ombudsman will also have the power to direct the production or inspection of materials that can assist the ombudsman in the investigation, make factual findings based on the evidence procured in the course of the investigation, enter and inspect places related to the complaint, and do such matters and things associated with the exercise of its power under this Bill.

The Bill proposes making the following an offence — intentionally giving false information, failing to appear upon receiving notice, exercising improper influence, willfully obstructing, hindering, or resisting the Ombudsman or any other person in the exercise of their powers, committing contempt towards the Ombudsman, and making misrepresentation.

The penalties that can be imposed upon conviction, the Bill proposes fines ranging from RM10,000 to RM50,000 and imprisonment ranging from six months to three years, respectively or to both.

This bill requires the Ombudsman to submit reports to the Sarawak Legislative Assembly, through its Minister, on its activities and its affairs; the result of any enquiry carried out by the Ombudsman, including any findings, recommendations and opinions; and other reports which the Ombudsman may consider necessary.

“This ensures that the Ombudsman’s findings are transparent and accessible to the public, and this August House has oversight over the performance of the Ombudsman and the actions or activities undertaken by him in pursuance of the new law’s provisions. It portrays the independence of the Ombudsman’s institution, which is free from any interference, whether political or otherwise,” Awang Tengah continued.

In addition, the Sarawak Cabinet may make rules as may be expedient or necessary for carrying out the provisions of this Bill, including the prescription of offences and its punishments for any contravention of any rules made hereunder; procedures and forms for compounding of offences; the procedure for investigation; code of conduct of the Ombudsman; and such other purposes which may be considered necessary for the exercise of the powers and the performance of the functions of the Ombudsman under this Bill.

Pursuant to item 7 of List II (State List) of the Ninth Schedule of the Federal Constitution, Awang Tengah said Sarawak is empowered to legislate on matters relating to the machinery of the State government, which is exclusively for State services.

“Hence, we are now exercising our constitutional authority to establish the Sarawak Ombudsman with the primary objective of elevating accountability standards in public administration and providing measures against maladministration by the state public service agencies.

“This law will, therefore, enhance transparency and accountability in government agencies. The Ombudsman will ensure check-and-balance elements are in place and enable the government to improve its public delivery systems and procedures. This will lead to a better administration and to increase public trust and respect in the government,” he added. — DayakDaily