The Customs Department needs a total overhaul to repair its tarnished image.
ONE of the remarkable features of the Malay language is the intriguing use of similes in sayings and proverbs.
Some of the metaphors cannot be literally translated into English without losing the nuances.
Like this one, for example: Harapkan pagar, pagar makan padi. Translated, it roughly means: Depended on the fence but the fence ate the (unhusked) rice.
The saying defies logic, though. Can fences ‘eat’ rice? In any case, padi fields in the country have never been protected by fences, except around seedlings in nurseries.
There has been a continuous debate over this particular adage since the 60s.
Burhanuddin al-Helmy, the leftist nationalist who led PAS between 1956 until his death in 1969, was perhaps the first to suggest that the proverb got lost in translation while being translated from Jawi script.
He theorised that the original saying was: Harapkan pegar, pegar makan padi.
Pegar, or ayam pegar is a beautiful forest pheasant called the Crested Fireback (lophura ignita).
The male of the species has a peacock-like crest, bluish-black plumage, blue facial skin, a black-and-white tail and an orangey-red patch of feathers on its back.
The argument supporting pegar over pagar is that the pheasant was once domesticated for pest control as it eats insects, rodents, snails and weeds, in addition to grain.
As it is basically a ground bird, the pre-harvested rice is largely safe from it but if the ears of rice stalks are bent by weight or a storm, the pegar is sure to feast on the grain.
The Crested Fireback is now listed as a near threatened species.
The premise of the bird being used for pest control could be a plausible explanation for the proverb as another similar species, the Lady Amethyst Pheasant (chrysolophus amherstiae) – native to Myanmar – is reportedly still being domesticated for the purpose.
But enough of the bird talk. To return to the proverb, the pagar or pegar under the spotlight today is the Royal Malaysian Customs Department, or more accurately, the black sheep among its 13,000 work force.
The rot has crept to the very top, judging by the ranks of those arrested in the latest bribery scandal involving under-declared consignments of cigarettes and liquor.
It seems that the smuggling syndicates have been greasing the palms of officers and have them wrapped around their fingers for a long time, allowing revenue losses running into billions of ringgit.
Nine Customs officers, including a state director, have since been charged with numerous counts of bribery.
They have been accused of receiving monthly bribes ranging between RM500 and RM50,000 from the rackets.
A Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) special task force, set up three years ago, is still investigating dozens of Customs officers believed to be in cahoots with the smugglers while the department has launched its own clean-up exercise.
Among the immediate steps taken is to rotate staff at exit and entry points where corruption is rampant.
With due respect to the honest and hard-working Customs officers and staff, pledges and ad hoc spring cleaning exercises won’t be enough to repair the department’s tarnished image.
It needs a total overhaul in terms of personnel and systems.
Only three years ago, MACC arrested 62 officers involved with syndicates which smuggled out RM10bil worth of goods from Port Klang and other ports.
Many of those caught had fat bank accounts and, in some cases, even gold bars at their homes.
Several of them were sacked but as far as we know, none were prosecuted.
My friend, former Bernama editor-in-chief Datuk Seri Azman Ujang, who is a member of MACC’s Consultative and Corruption Prevention Panel, was among those who questioned the department’s top officers after the fiasco.
He said he was shocked by the outdated procedures, equipment and bureaucracy in a department, which collects RM30bil annually.
“Instead of automation, computerisation and better work processes to minimise graft, there was too much person-to-person interaction. They were told not to be penny wise pound foolish,” said Azman.
About a year after the 2011 scandal, the Government approved RM600mil to improve the system, including radio-frequency identification tags and tracking software for the movement of containers.
“It was implemented last year but after spending millions on the new system, its usage was not compulsory. What a joke,” Azman said.
It was only used on “voluntary basis” because agents did not want to pay RM10 for an electronic seal to track the consignments.
As one former top Customs officer described it, “human intervention” prevented the department from making the system compulsory, adding that the loophole benefited smugglers and corrupt officers.
If a smuggling syndicate can afford to pay up to RM50,000 to a corrupt official, how much does it rake in a month? Ten times more? A hundred times more?
In Malaysia, as in elsewhere, there is much attention on the bribe taker but not on the giver, just as there isn’t enough focus on corruption in the private sector as compared with the public sector.
It’s as if kickbacks, fraud and tainted procurement processes are fictional in the private sector.
It is about time that those who have the means and resources to bribe are treated as equally guilty if not guiltier than takers in the scourge of graft, instead of being disregarded or seen as victims of sorts.
Would the people behind the smuggling syndicates who had been paying the Customs officers in the latest bribery scandal also be identified and charged? One wonders.
> Associate Editor M. Veera Pandiyan likes this quote by novelist Robert Anton Wilson: Cynics regard everybody as equally corrupt, idealists regard everybody as equally corrupt, except themselves.
>The views expressed are entirely the writer’s own.