Combating corruption beyond party politics

COMBATING corruption is a national mission. Malaysians should not allow party politics to distract them from this mission, the success of which is critical for our very survival.

Let us begin by acknowledging that both the Opposition and the Government are trying to fight this scourge. By declaring the assets of its State Executive Councillors to the public, the DAP-led Pakatan Rakyat (PR) government in Penang has set a good example. In Selangor, the PR government has introduced a Freedom of Information Act, which is an important instrument in enhancing accountability.

In both states, contracts are awarded through open tender. The Pas Mentris Besar of both Kelantan and Kedah are perceived as clean leaders.

Since 2004, the Barisan Nasional Federal Government has also adopted a series of measures to curb corruption and to strengthen integrity. Among them are the following:

● Creating a restructured Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) with greater autonomy and more powers reflected in the establishment of five oversight committees designed to ensure enforcement and action;

● The establishment of 14 special anti-corruption courts with the mandate to adjudicate all corruption cases within 12 months;

● The enactment of a Whistleblower Act, which encourages disclosures of improper conduct and protects persons making such disclosures;

● The enactment of a Witness Protection Act, which ensures the safety and welfare of witnesses giving evidence in criminal cases, including those linked to corruption;

● The establishment of an Enforcement Agency Integrity Commission, which aims to investigate alleged abused of power at the level of enforcement agencies and their personnel.

● The establishment of Institut Integriti Malaysia (IIM) to help develop a culture on integrity at all levels and in all spheres of society;

● The establishment of an Anti-Corruption Academy, which seeks to equip personnel in anti-corruption agencies with the requisite knowledge and skills;

● The signing of Corporate Integrity Pledges, which commits a company to conducting its business free of corruption. Those who adhere to the Pledge, which may be verified by independent bodies, would be at an advantage when they bid for contracts;

● The signing of an Integrity Pact between the Government and a private corporation bidding for a government project as an integral part of the procurement exercise as in the case of the Mass Rapid Transit( MRT) contract; and

● The increasing acceptance of open tenders publicised through the media for procurement exercises enhancing transparency and accountability.

These measures have contributed to more effective moves against corruption in certain areas. The massive operation against graft in Customs, which led to the arrest of 63 officers in March 2011, is a case in point. The nabbing of a senior official in the Iskandar Malaysia Southern Corridor project is yet another instance.

At the same time, there has been a significant increase in the number of arrests of those allegedly involved in corruption, including former political leaders, highly placed public servants, top-notch corporate figures and even an MACC official.

It is because of these new institutional mechanisms and the sustained efforts to curb corruption that Michael J. Hershman, one of the founders of the Berlin-based Transparency International, observed in an article in the Huffington Post (June 22, 2012) that Malaysia has a “comprehensive anti-corruption system” and “the MACC has made outstanding progress by focusing on a three-pillar approach that institutes reform in government, civil society and business.”

In this regard, it is worth noting that Malaysia's fight against corruption has been going on for more than four decades. Malaysia is arguably the first country in the Global South to have established an anti-corruption agency and formulated an anti-corruption law way back in 1967.

Even before 2004, a number of Federal Ministers, Mentris Besar, and State Executive Councillors had been tried and convicted for corruption.

Battle far from over

Nonetheless, the battle against this social cancer is far from over. In spite of all the recent changes to law and policy, corruption still persists at our border check-points, on our roads, in boardrooms, along the corridors of power and even on the football field.

The alleged criminal breach of trust (CBT) involved in the disgraceful National Feedlot Corp (NFC) scandal shows that there are elements in the elite stratum of our society who are woefully devoid of even an ounce of rectitude.

Even in Opposition-run states, there are allegations of corruption. Land deals, zoning irregularities, incestuous ties with developers and shady contracts provide grist to the mill. There have also been revelations of alleged mismanagement and misappropriation in relation to a novel financial enterprise in one of the states.

This is why both the Government and the Opposition should demonstrate anew their determination to combat corruption by using the coming general election as their platform.

Both sides should require all candidates to undertake to declare their assets and liabilities and those of their immediate family to the public if they are elected.

They should also sign an Integrity Pledge with their voters in their respective constituencies, which would require them to adhere to certain principles of honesty and integrity during their tenure as elected representatives.

Most of all, Government and Opposition parties should immediately begin crafting a mechanism for financing general elections that would eliminate donations from business entities. The public financing of elections is one of the recommendations of the Parliamentary Select Committee (PSC) on Electoral Reform adopted by the Dewan Rakyat in April this year.

However, reforms of this sort will not be enough to eradicate the menace of corruption. Elite attitudes will also have to undergo a transformation. Elites in both the public and private sectors should abandon their lifestyle of opulence and extravagance.

It is their addiction to this lifestyle that often tempts them to indulge in the vice of corruption. Elites should also draw a clear line separating their private and public expenditures. When that demarcation gets fuzzy, abuse sets in.

Even when all the laws and institutions are in place, elites sometimes set aside the rules and abuse their power in pursuit of their own vested interests. When that happens, it will not be possible to check corruption.

There are also societal conditions that influence the fight against corruption. There is no need to emphasise that freedom and democracy specifically an independent media are a valuable asset in the quest for a corruption-free society.

It is even more important to ensure that wealth and opportunities are equitably distributed. Societies where the gap between the “have-a-lot” and the “have-a-little” is widening will not be able to stamp out corruption. For relative deprivation increases the temptation to resort to illegal means of acquiring riches in order to “keep up with the joneses.” It explains why in egalitarian societies like Finland or Sweden, corruption is minimal.

It is only too apparent that combating corruption is a mammoth challenge that deserves our total commitment. For that reason we owe it to our children and our children's children to take this struggle out of party politics. An inclusive national focus is what the fight against corruption demands.

● Dr Chandra Muzaffar is a Malaysian political scientist who has written extensively on issues related to corruption and integrity.

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