By Sim Kwang Yang
Eleven public officials from the Ministry of Youth and Sports as well as some businessmen have been charged in court for alleged corrupt practices as reported in the Auditor General’s report.
Visibly pleased during an official visit to the Anti-Corruption Agency HQ, the PM praised the management and men of the agency for their good work, and encouraged them to go after the corrupt, no matter what their rank and status.
Have these high-profile anti-graft cases restored the confidence of the ordinary street-wise citizens, especially those who live and work in large urban centres? Has the BN government therefore displayed their political will to rid the nation of this crippling scourge forever? The answer must be an emphatic “no”!
Even the very pro-government national daily, the New Straits Times, shares my scepticism. In an editorial that appeared on 25.10.2007 under the title “Delivering the goods”, the paper has this to say:
“As it is, while there has been a very conspicuous campaign to curb corruption, this has not been matched by public progress reports in terms of proven cases, litigations, and court hearings. In the fight against corruption, the bureaucratic preference for washing the dirty linen behind closed doors should not apply. When the seeming reluctance to do anything which can be construed as undermining the morale of the civil service is taken as an indication of the weakness of enforcement and the lack of political will, it can only reinforce the perception the anti-corruption drive has been long on rhetoric and short on delivery.”
“The public sign that the ACA is astir, building momentum and prepared to be more forthcoming about its doings bode well. This is because it is the greater risk of being exposed and caught that is such a crucial element in any successful anti-corruption campaign.”
The editorial has a point. Anti-corruption cases should be highlighted in the press, until out of fear of shame, public officials will abstain from the temptation of palm-greasing at all times. But that alone is far from being truly effective in tackling the problem of graft, that has sunk such deep roots into our body politic.
Strike at the root cause
The root of corruption is human greed, operating freely under a cloud of bad governance and lack of transparency, starting from the very top level. Punishing mid-level civil servants while powerful politicians continue to get fabulously rich is tantamount to curing the symptoms, and not striking at the root cause of the problem. It can be seen as merely finding scapegoats for this national malaise.
In his column article entitled “Shape up, scapegoats won’t do”, that appeared in the NST on Oct 21, former president of Transparency International Malaysia president Tunku Abdul Aziz has this to say:
“Two Marine Department officers have been made scapegoats (in the Mersing Tioman ferry tragedy) and suspended pending investigation. If we think that is going to solve or transform the deeply embedded culture of impunity, then we have to think again.”
Describing the Transport Ministry as ‘dysfunctional’, Tunku Abdul Aziz claims that it is not important to know how many ferries and express coaches are operating on our roads and in our waters without a valid license and a certificate of fitness.
“What is relevant to us is why the ministry has allowed this totally unacceptable state of affairs to become its management centrepiece. The implication of this public display of institutional paralysis and incompetence for the nation’s credibility are a great deal more serious than we can imagine, apart from the more immediate negative impact on the tourism-related earnings.”
Describing Malaysia as an “over-regulated and under-enforced country, he does put his finger on the heart of the matter. The more laws there are to regulate and control the life of the citizens, the greater is the opportunity for graft. The worldly-wise and cynical private citizens have long realised that for every application to the government to do any business of any sort, there is always a greedy palm begging to be greased. It is that bad.
As long as corrupt public officials are prepared to look the other way, using the mountains of regulations within their jurisdiction as weapons for what amounts to extort for rent from the private sector, illegal businesses will continue to thrive, with dire consequences.
But Tunku Abdul Aziz seems to have missed the mark when he laments that we are a first-rate nation run by third-rate bureaucrats. (I emphasise the word “seems” because Tunku Abdul Aziz cannot write on the NST as freely as I can on Malaysiakini.) The bureaucrats do more than following the example of their political masters; they work in the aura of opacity in the nation’s public life created by their political masters in the first place – like fish swimming in murky water!
Ask any citizen with a healthy dose of cynicism and access to privileged information how many federal ministers, state mentri besars, state chief ministers, state executive councillors, state ministers in Sarawak and Sabah, or any elected representatives for that matter, can be described as squeaky clean like a whistle, and you will hear a sneering grunt that deafens the ear.
So far, the only check against corruption among the nation’s most powerful individuals is the requirement for them to declare their personal assets to the PM.
Playing Machiavellian games
This requirement is totally useless and ineffective. Politicians’ self-enriching businesses through abuse of power can be hidden deeply in shares held by a proxy or a nominee. We are not sure also whether the declaration will also be accompanied by a statement of how those assets are acquired. What is certain is that the declaration will never be made public. Besides, does the PM have to declare his personal assets as well?
Then again, we know that the ACA is answerable to the PM in the ultimate analysis. It has become a powerful political tool in the hands of the PM, for him to play Machiavellian games with his political allies and underlings.
Take the CM of my home state Sarawak for instance. His family has gotten very rich and his family business, through Cahaya Mata Sarawak (CMS), dominates the business sector in Sarawak. Since the revelation by a Japanese newspaper about the CM’s alleged involvement in corrupt practices in timber deals has come to light, police reports and reports to the ACA have been made by PKR leaders. So far, there has been no progress report from ACA, and cynical citizens can expect none.
Last year, burglars broke into the home of a Sarawak assistant minister and made off with something like RM400,000 in cash and kind. The burning question on the net in Sarawak is: how can a mere assistant minister get so rich? How rich are the full state ministers, really? I insist that such questions are morally, politically, and legally valid in Malaysia.
In short, institutionally, we give too much burden to the PM for arresting corruption at very high places. If he really goes after the really big sharks, his days as PM may be numbered.
What we need is not the good intentions or personal wisdom of any one PM, but long-range institutional changes.
In the short term, the ACA must be given the sort of independence that frees the agency from all political influence, perhaps by making them answerable directly to the parliament. Ideally, the Public Accounts Committee of the Dewan Rakyat (which examines the Auditor General’s Report annually) ought to be chaired by a member of the opposition. We need laws to protect whistle-blowers, instituting witness protection programmes if necessary.
In the long-term, we need to have all the healthy institutions of a truly democratic country in place. If we cast our glance around the world, we can observe that corruption is least where the polities are the most democratic – with the exceptions of Singapore and Hong Kong.
Vision of taking power
What the enlightened readers and letter-writers on Malaysiakini have been clamouring for many years is right; Malaysia needs to be more democratic. And one of the better consequences of a democratic way of life could be the diminishing and eventual eradication of corruption at all levels.
We need to fulfil the doctrine of separation of powers between the three branches of government. We need a judiciary that is independent and courageous, and the integrity of our judges must be beyond reproach. We need a much freer press than the quasi-government bulletin boards that we call the “national dailies”.
We also need our opposition parties to think more like the opposition parties of a liberal developed democracy, to harbour the eternal vision of taking power at both the federal and state levels.
Above all, we need an enlightened citizenry who will know how to vote for the right reasons.
Without all that changes, Umno will still be in power in another 50 years, and the lame-duck ACA will still be prosecuting the small fry under the cynical but helpless gaze of our children and grandchildren.
This article was first published in Malaysiakini on October 27, 2007, and has been edited for Hornbill Unleashed.