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Sunday, October 31, 2010

Corruption: The Pass Mark Eludes Malaysia


Tunku Abdul Aziz

Judged internationally, by almost every performance indicator known to man, Malaysia is a duffer, and that is putting it charitably. Our report card is drowning in a sea of red ink. The 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index just released shows Malaysia scoring 4.4 points at number 56 out of 178 countries surveyed.

Many have questioned the methodology used and have gone so far as to suggest developing our own index. But let me just say this. Whatever we may think, the Transparency International Corruption Perceptions Index enjoys a reputation second to none as the world’s most authoritative index of its kind. A similar sentiment has been expressed about the world’s top universities index. Shoot the bearer of bad news and retreat to hide under our tempurung and croak our lungs out for the entire world to hear about our version of Malaysia’s achievements. We have become a nation of bad losers.

When Datuk Anwar Fazal, Raja Aziz Addruse, Datuk Param Cumaraswamy and other like minded men and women of the highest integrity met in the Royal Commonwealth Society one night many years ago to discuss forming the Malaysian Chapter of Transparency International Malaysia, they had seen enough, and had become greatly concerned at the speed with which corruption in national life had destroyed the moral fabric and consumed the very soul of our people. It was not the easiest of undertakings to operate an anti-corruption non-governmental organisation during Mahathir’s corrupt and repressive regime.

The Registrar of Societies in this case was helpful, and much to our delight, approved our application. TI owes its existence to Tan Sri Hassan Marican, then President of PETRONAS a highly principled servant of this country. He invited me to lunch in my capacity as President of TI and said, not five minutes into the meal, that he would like to support our work, and how much would I need? I responded by saying I was not interested in a one off grant, but long term support. I asked for very little, not wanting to be greedy. He agreed. I understand the PETRONAS support continues today, with no strings attached.

In the years since the TICPI made its appearance in 1995, two years after Transparency International was founded, Malaysia has very rarely achieved the minimum pass mark of 5 points. We used to be ahead of South Korea regularly, and in Asia were for years only behind Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan and Taiwan. What all this shows is that we have regressed to a point that corruption in our country is no longer just a fact of life, but it has graduated to become a way of life. When we look closely at the countries that are perceived to be among the least corrupt, we find they are invariably well governed and that there is a correlation between good governance and competitiveness. These countries realise only too well that corruption if unchecked will distort and destroy their moral values and value systems and, sooner rather than later, their economies.

The symptoms of moral decay is everywhere in this country. It never ceases to amaze me at the naivety of our government leaders that they think that mere rhetorical expressions of good intentions to fight corruption could camouflage the unbridled systemic subversion of the country’s mechanisms of checks and balances and other institutions of government as part of our constitutional arrangements to protect the rights of our citizens. Mahathir’s had a cynical view of his stewardship, a concept totally alien to him. He set about destroying, like a man possessed, what he saw as constitutional or legal impediments to his personal and political ambitions. His legacy to Malaysia is best described as a lasting and deeply entrenched culture of corruption that this country will be saddled with for all time unless we, the citizens, take matters into our own hands and vote the corrupt government of the day out of office. Do it before it becomes a case of too little, too late.

In the meantime, my advice to Najib is to stop playing the silly games much loved by Abdullah Badawi, the keeper turned poacher. He put up a slew of anti-corruption showpieces such as the National Institute of Integrity, the Royal Commission inquiring into the Royal Malaysia Police, and new anti-corruption laws to support the work of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission, all nothing more than a sleight of hand that has fooled no one, with predictable results. Badawi’s exercise was both dishonest and costly, and as the latest TICPI shows, corruption has the last laugh.

In a speech I made in 2001 at the Asian Development Bank-organised conference in Phnom Penh, I reminded my audience that “Even before we contemplate any action against corruption, it is important for us to recognise the special and complex circumstances that give rise to it. Studies show that a common cause of corruption is a lack of strong and unsullied government institutions, such as the judiciary, the legislature, the office of the auditor-general, the police, the office of the attorney general, the media, civil society organisations and the private sector.”

In Malaysia, sadly, Mahathir has succeeded brilliantly in doing his foul deed. None of these important institutions can any longer even justify their existence and they have become part of the problem of corruption. “The main purpose of developing strong institutions is to prevent corruption from occurring in the first place rather than relying on penalties after the event” according to Jeremy Pope in his TI Source Book 2000.

The Executive can change the hitherto negative international perceptions and at the same time exercise greater legitimacy to govern by making it mandatory for all holding elected public office, including the prime minister, to declare their assets and those of their wives and immediate families to an all party parliamentary commission. Other areas of concern relate to issues of integrity of the various key national institutions. Public procurement as practised in our country breeds grand corruption and is one of the reasons why we score badly in overall terms. The Official Secrets Act protects the corrupt and must be replaced with a Freedom of Information Act. It would be extremely important to bring new, intelligent and untainted blood into the MACC which at the moment seems to have run out of steam before the whistle to commence play is blown. It must report to an all party parliamentary commission.

While we want those who commit corruption to be suitable punished, this must be done within the scope of the existing judicial practice. The idea as suggested by TI Malaysia President that for the MACC to operate effectively, it must be given the power to prosecute is dangerous as it shows a lack of understanding of what constitutes justice. What is implied in this preposterous idea is that we abandon all principles of fairness and fair play so that the MACC could trample on our justice system with impunity. Enough is enough.

Early next month I will be speaking in Sydney, Australia at the annual conference of the Australian Corporate Lawyers Association on, no prize for guessing, my favourite subject, Overcoming Corruption: A Regional Challenge. I will have a field day calling a spade a spade. I hope I will not be accused of disloyalty to my country, but if telling the truth is treachery, so be it.

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