IN this Cafe Latte chat, we bring together Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Datuk Paul Low Seng Kuan, Performance Management and Delivery Unit’s (Pemandu) anti-corruption director Ravindran Deva-gunam, Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commis-sion’s (MACC) investigations director Datuk Mustafar Ali, and Deputy Education Minister P. Kamalanathan to discuss the topic of combating corruption in Malaysia. The chat was moderated by The Star Online news editor Martin Vengadesan.
Martin: Last year, the Corruption Perception Index by Transparency International (TI) ranked us 54 out of 176 countries. Can we sit back happily, or do we have a lot of work to do?
Low: We still have a lot of work to do. Malaysia aspires to be a highly developed and high-income nation, and there is a direct correlation between the corruption index and the standard of living. If you look at the top 10, those are countries with a clean government, a society highly intolerant of corruption, good institutions, and a society that engages the people.
Over the last five or six years, (the ranking of) Malaysia has been declining, but the index actually shows an improvement from 2011 to 2012. I believe this trend will continue as the Government is now beginning to put in more effort, and we are gaining some traction.
Martin: What precise steps have been taken?
Ravindran: Back in 2010, we declared war on corruption. We put in some building blocks, such as specialised courts for corruption, which reduced the backlog of corruption cases in court. We put in some deterrents, such as a name and shame database which lists individuals who have been convicted in a Malaysian court of law for corruption.
We’re also working with the identified area of government procurement to reduce the risk of corruption.
We then took the fight to the private sector. When there’s corruption, there’s always two sides: the giver and the taker. We have to address the giver, which starts in the private sector. So we put in integrity pledges.
On the Government’s side, we have introduced the full-fledged integrity pact for some of the larger government projects such as the MRT.
Martin: Is the MACC a crucial soldier in the war on corruption?
Mustafar: The MACC cannot work alone. We need to work hand in hand with all parties. Some look at MACC as an enemy, but they should look at MACC as their friend. The authorities that fight corruption must join hands.
The people need to be convinced that MACC is really an independent body. Yes, we are really independent, long ago since our establishment in 1967.
There are five oversight bodies monitoring the MACC – the advisory body, the special Cabinet committee on corruption in the Parliament, the Complaints Committee, and the Consultation and Corruption Prevention Panel. The Operations Review Panel committee looks into every single case that is being investigated.
All these panels are from the public.
Kamalanathan: We have to trust that MACC can and will be able to assist the country in overcoming corruption. What they need is a lot of empowerment and support. And also the trust from the rakyat that we have an agency that does nothing else but ensure that they put this country on track, especially in the area of corruption.
Corruption begins from an individual. When I speed and the police issues me a summons, I take it. Corruption stops there. I have done that through accepting and settling the summons. When constituents or friends ask me, I tell them not to talk about corruption if they contribute to it.
Martin: Does having the same ruling coalition since Independence hurt the war against corruption?
Low: If you have a Government that is in power for a long time, there tends to be a situation where it takes things for granted. If they have all the powers where people will not question them, then it is likely that abuse will occur. The issue is very clear when a system of patronage starts to build up.
I think we did not guard the sanctity of the independence of our institutions. Somewhere along the line, they were undermined. Therefore, we deteriorated in our fight against corruption.
The best way is to have a check and balance. Not only in a system by itself, but also politically, where it should have a counter-balance with different views and debates on issues.
Ravindran: Corruption in this country has become an accepted norm. We have corruption in schools, kids have basically said it’s okay to take or give. It has become pervasive, and society has become accepting of it.
Martin: Is there a perception that there’s no punishment for doing something bad?
Ravindran: Corruption is seen as a strategic tool. We need to start reversing that. I don’t think it’s a matter of fighting corruption – we need to start introducing integrity. Integrity from the standpoint of a politician, to a professional.
Kamalanathan: The coalition has had six prime ministers over the past 55 years, and each has brought reformation and transformation to the system. Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak has made this criteria as part of the election. He ensured that all election candidates signed an integrity pledge – all 222 parliamentary candidates, and more than 500 state assembly candidates.
Ravindran: That was the first of its kind anywhere in the world.
Kamalanathan: By the end of the month, all ministers and deputy ministers are supposed to declare their assets. So this is being addressed right from the top. A coalition can remain in power, but there must be transformation within the system. And Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Tun Razak is doing that right now.
Ravindran: He also accepted a completely independent index done by TI. Internationally, to say, “I’m going to use that as my KPI to show you how we are fighting corruption”. The first leader anywhere in the world.
Low: Inviting me as TI-Malaysia president to be part of the Cabinet is a real paradigm shift for the Prime Minister. Because I’m there for one purpose – to ensure that transformation is taking place, and to ensure that governance and integrity are being inculcated into the government system. My whole portfolio is basically governance and integrity.
Martin: Why did you think you were asked?
Low: I think the Prime Minister believes that he needs an outside catalyst. I am coming in without any political agenda except that I want to see change and build the nation. Corruption is one of the major issues, so I am asked to lead the drive together with other agencies like Pemandu and even the Auditor-General, to put in change that is required on the Government side.
Martin: Is everything in place to properly fight corruption?
Mustafar: The first thing we need is legislation, the law itself. In terms of combating corruption, we have had the Prevention of Corruption Act since 1961 (repealed by the Anti-Corruption Act 1997). The MACC’s name kept changing until it was changed to a commission in 2009.
But, more importantly, we have administrative reforms that give real change in terms of the fight against corruption. With that reform, comes the power of the MACC and strength to combat corruption.
Take, for example, the declaration of assets and people living beyond their means. That kind of provision in the Act will give powers to the authority to get to the root of corruption. As for administrative reform, we have had integrity committees.
Low: To have a clean government, the leadership itself must be committed to upholding integrity. The values must come from their own conviction that they will uphold righteousness and integrity regardless of circumstances.
Any government or alternative government that comes into power, if the leaders don’t have that commitment, the same thing will happen. The system in the government must reduce the opportunities for being corrupt.
Martin: Are pre-emptive measures being taken?
Ravindran: If you take the MRT project, which is one of the largest government projects, early on in the phase we actually introduced the full-fledged TI integrity pact.
So, today, we have the MACC, the Auditor-General and TI sitting as an oversight body overseeing every procurement aspect of the entire MRT project.
To date, you haven’t heard any kind of innuendo about the MRT project because we have that oversight board.
Now, we’ve taken that integrity pact and put that onto several other large projects. That’s something we’d like to follow through on, to have these particular bodies, and maybe bring on some additional NGOs.
Martin: If you do your job properly, you won’t be popular with everyone.
Mustafar: We are really colour blind. Whenever we have information, in terms of taking action, we don’t care who they are. We take that as our job, our duty and accountability, and will investigate.
But again, we talk about facts versus evidence to go to court, and here we have the separation of powers. MACC is the one that investigates, the Attorney-General’s office looks into the totality of the issue, whether or not there’s sufficient evidence to be presented in court. If it’s only 50%, we don’t take them to court.
Kamalanathan: Everywhere you go, there’s some sort of corruption taking place. I’m not saying we can overcome it overnight, but serious action is being taken. The fact that the Prime Minister has appointed Datuk Paul Low means a lot.
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