Whistleblow for a bright future


We need more whistleblowers. A publicity blitz will do the trick

THE US Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) has something called the Office of the Whistleblower. It was set up in 2011 to run the commission’s whistleblower programme, which rewards individuals who voluntarily provide “high-quality original information” that leads to enforcement action resulting in sanctions of more than US$1mil.

These whistleblowers get between 10% and 30% of the money collected by the SEC. This has proven to be a powerful incentive for people to come forward and report wrongdoings in the capital market.

In fiscal year 2014 (October 2013 to September 2014), the SEC received 3,620 whistleblower tips. Two years before, the total was 3,001. The commission issued whistleblower awards to nine individuals in FY 2014, compared with five in all previous years combined.

Last September, the SEC set a new record for its whistleblower programme when it agreed to award over US$30mil to a whistleblower living outside the United States for supplying information on “an ongoing fraud that otherwise would have been very difficult to detect”.

The current programme is very different from the one that was assessed by the SEC’s Office of the Inspector General (akin to an internal auditor) in 2010. It was called a bounty programme at the time and had been around for more than two decades.

The Office of the Inspector General found that few payments had been made under the programme, and that was probably because not many people had applied for a bounty. Said the report: “The programme is also not widely recognised inside or outside the Commission.”

The programme has since been upgraded, and a 2013 assessment by the Office of the Inspector General acknowledged the improvements.

Our Securities Commission (SC) doesn’t have a whistleblower programme that offers rewards for crime-busting tips. Instead, it has a page on its website that defines a whistleblower and assures that under the Securities Commission Act, when a person whistleblows to the SC, his identity and the information he discloses will be kept confidential.

The page also tells us that the Capital Markets and Services Act gives additional whistleblower protection to certain categories of persons, such as auditors, CEOs, company secretaries and officers responsible for the preparation and approval of accounts.

In addition, says the SC, there’s the Whistleblower Protection Act, which covers members of the public. Unfortunately, the links on the page that are supposed to bring visitors to online copies of the Acts don’t work.

Somehow, this doesn’t quite make a compelling case for whistleblowing. A cut of a huge fine imposed by the SC would have been more persuasive.

However, if monetary rewards for whistleblowers aren’t going to be an option in Malaysia, there may be another way – hopefully a cheaper way too – to encourage people to whistleblow.

In the first of nine recommendations in its 2010 report, the Office of the Inspector General urged the SEC to develop a communication plan to address outreach on the bounty programme.

Indeed, this is what the SC should consider doing as well. The good thing here is that there’s plenty to pick up from the many memorable publicity campaigns by government agencies that we have seen. Here are essential elements to consider:

Slogan/tagline

Sometime, a mere few words stringed together can do magic. But it requires skill and the right context. “Don’t mess with Texas” helped reduce litter on Texas highways. “Don’t mess with Melaka” helped increase scorn on the information superhighway. For whistleblowing, an effective (and suitably threatening) tagline could be “You whistle and we’ll blow them away”. Or we can rally people with this movie-inspired slogan: “Just put our tips together and whistleblow”. Of course, there’s always the fallback “Whistleblowing secures the country’s prosperity”.

Song

People are moved by music and singing. According to the theory of government messaging, the cheesier the song, the more attention it gets. The general rule is that the lyrics must incorporate the following word and phrases: nation, development, bright future, vision, together and prosperity.

Mascot

Isn’t it obvious? It has to be an anthropomorphic whistle. Some people may be freaked out by the sight of such a thing but they’re probably not the target audience anyway. If you think a whistle with a face, arms and legs is unsettling, you’re not likely to be the sort to whistleblow. A cute but relevant name for the mascot is must, such as Blowhard, Toots or Airy Harry.

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Cartoons and animation are compulsory because they’re funny, or at least appear to be funny. We Malaysians have a great sense of humour. We can laugh at everything, including ourselves.

Executive editor Errol Oh has no whistle to blow.

Optimistically Cautious