Skating on ethical grounds

  • Living
  • Saturday, 01 Mar 2014

It’s not easy to proceed in business if you think the landscape around you is corrupt.

POSSIBLY the biggest controversy to hit the recent Winter Olympics was the judging in the women’s figure skating competition. Adlina Sotnikova of Russia, who was practically tied with Kim Yu-na of South Korea after the short routine, then powered ahead in the free skate to win the gold medal – despite stumbling while coming out from one of her jumps.

More detailed analysis of the scores, although anonymous, revealed incongruities. One of the judges had given the Russian skater significantly higher marks for the Grade of Execution (GOE) score than the others. (The GOE is an indication of how well a contestant performed their technical elements.)

And then we learn one of the Russian judges, who is married to the President of the Russian Figure Skating Federation, was happily hugging the gold medallist backstage after the event.

Well, it looks like a conspiracy ...

This reminds me of my experience in various government tenders, where even before results are announced, there is much talk of who is already going to win because of how much “cable” they have with certain people ...

Given that kind of thinking, I wonder if that is why some companies send in proposals with spelling and grammatical errors. After all, why bother doing your best when the system is corrupt?

According to KPMG’s Fraud, Bribery and Corruption Survey 2013, 90% of respondents believed that “Bribery and corruption are major concerns for Malaysian businesses generally” but 71% also stated that “Bribery and corruption remain an inevitable cost of doing business”. (

We know it is wrong, but it still happens. I appreciate that there are perhaps grey areas. Something you are doing might be technically dubious, but the benefits in return to the company and your customers are undoubtedly positive, so where do you draw the line?

I was recently told about a simple test for integrity: if you hold a practice out in the light, does it still look clean? If the public sees what you are doing, does your reputation stay intact?

Indeed, the risk of condoning corrupt practises is that your reputation as a company will drop when you are found out – and reputation matters as much as anything else when it comes to your customers.

Edelman, the world’s largest privately-owned PR company, runs an annual “trust barometer” survey. Their 2011 report states that while 69% of those they surveyed say a company’s reputation is based on the high quality of its products, 65% also say that it must be a “company I can trust”, and the same number also say it must conduct “transparent and honest business practices”.

Nearly three-quarters say they will actively avoid doing business with a company they don’t trust, while 85% will go out of their way to buy from a company they trust.

Perhaps doing the right thing is hard. But I want to suggest that people do it because doing the wrong thing is accepted as the norm. Doing something illegal may not strike many as being unethical.

There is a paradox in Malaysia that authority is generally acceded to, but once that authority is removed, there is a brazen willingness to circumvent laws and rules.

I am thinking both of everyday misdemeanours, such as double-parking or selling illegal DVDs, to more corrupt practices in business, such as trying to influence the award of potential contracts with gift-giving or junkets.

I once saw somebody right in front of me ask a taxi driver to write out a receipt for a value much higher than the cost of the ride, and the driver did it with no hesitation. And if you do confront them, they just shrug their shoulders and say, “Everybody does it”. So, even though you know it’s wrong, it’s accepted as being part of the culture.

So, even when you do something right and are successful, the underlying perception may be that you must have done something wrong to get there. Every government contract is awarded because of cronyism, they claim, so every rejected bid must be because they weren’t corrupt.

However, as in the case of the Olympic figure skating tournament, things are not clear cut. Experts who have come out in support of the Olympic judges have said that scoring in figure skating now overwhelmingly encourages technical ambition, so stumbling while trying extremely difficult jumps will always score higher than those in a perfectly executed simpler routine.

Fortunately, the figure skating GOE scores that were used as “evidence” of positive bias can provide insight. Closer examination will show you that another judge gave relatively much lower scores than the rest. So, if you want to accuse one judge of favouritism, you have to also accuse another for discriminating against her – or to accept that there is a natural variation in the scores due to subjectivity in judging.

Similarly, if Malaysian practices were more transparent about how they did business, perhaps it would be easier for the public to accept their integrity.

I’ve always thought for a long time that evaluation of public sector tenders should be made public, from the criteria used to evaluate, to the actual scores given to the proposals. In fact, if the companies agree to it, the proposals should also be published together with the evaluators’ remarks. I think this would cause more companies to understand that in many cases, their proposals were rejected simply because they were poorly done.

It seems to me many Malaysians think we are doing business on thin ice and proceed cautiously, afraid that at any point it will break through and expose its dirty underbelly. But if the ice were transparent enough so that we could see right through it, we could better understand where the weaknesses are and proceed with more confidence.

Logic is the antithesis of emotion but mathematician-turned-scriptwriter Dzof Azmi’s theory is that people need both to make sense of life’s vagaries and contradictions. Speak to him at

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Skating on ethical grounds


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