Royal Commissions of Inquiry are ad hoc bodies formed under the authority of the King (with advice from the government). It is made up of eminent persons and usually headed by a former judge.
Its powers are similar to those of a court: it can call witnesses and demand for documents, for example.
However, it does not have the power to prosecute, only to make recommendations. Furthermore, an RCI is limited to its terms of reference. In other words, it can only investigate whatever specific issue placed before it.
Malaysia has had eleven RCIs in the past. The early ones in the 1960s were about things like working conditions of civil servants and the pay of teachers.
Over the years, though, RCIs were created to investigate specific incidences. Some are overtly political like Teoh Beng Hock’s death, the VK Lingam video clip and Anwar Ibrahim’s beating at the hands of the police.
However, many are about terrible accidents and tragedies like the Sungai Buloh fireworks factory explosion and the collapse of the Penang ferry jetty.
The common thread between all these commissions, however, is that they happen fairly quickly after the incidents in question. There is a controversy and the RCI is tasked with finding out the truth of the matter and make recommendations.
Which is why the RCI to investigate Bank Negara losses in forex trading and the proposed RCI to investigate the Memali deaths are a bit odd, because both incidents happened thirty years ago.
Why wait so long? To be clear, I do not object in principle that these RCIs be formed; both incidents were serious and deserve investigation.
I do, however, wonder about the timing. Both these things happened when Mahathir Mohamad was prime minister. So, perhaps while he was PM there was insufficient political will to dig too deeply into the issues.
That is not the way it should be, but that is pretty much the way things are in the feudal politics of Malaysia.
Having said that, once Mahathir stepped down from power fourteen years ago, why didn’t the government open investigations then? The old fellow had been powerless for a long time and was in no way able to stop an RCI into the Bank Negara losses or Memali. Why wait until now?
Could it be that they are doing this now because Mahathir is in the opposition?
But that would mean they are using an important institution for political purposes. That would mean that the investigations are being done not for the interest of justice, but to gain political points.