Gift or bribe? It's hard to say

  • Letters
  • Sunday, 27 Jun 2004

Is the Asian culture of giving gifts to show appreciation in danger of becoming a disguise for a culture of corruption? SHAILA KOSHY examines whether this practice has a place in the scheme of good governance and the National Integrity Plan. 

GOOD governance is not just about doing the right things the right way but also to be seen doing so. This draws into question the practice of giving of gifts, which has always been acknowledged as ethos in Asian business relationships, particularly among the Chinese. 

In 2000, Australian authorities felt the need to address the issue because of the rising suspicion that recipients would be obliged to return favours. 

According to a news report dated Oct 8, 2000, it wasn’t just the Chinese but Greeks and Italians who gave gifts to local councillors or government officials as a gesture of appreciation or mark of respect. 

It is no different in Malaysia, but the hamper-traffic to federal and local government offices gets heavy at festival time, giving it an ostensibly innocent face.  

It is, however, the surreptitiously given gifts – golf clubs, silk/songket material, escorts when on overseas trips, massage services, holiday overseas for the whole family, paying for child's wedding reception or club membership – that have cast a shadow over the once innocuous practice. 

There is clearly a case for the government to re-look this practice in the light of the ethics and integrity espoused in the National Integrity Plan launched by Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi on April 23. 

On May 19, Terengganu Mentri Besar Datuk Idris Jusoh did his part by requesting people to give him books instead of expensive gifts for doing his official duty. 

In a letter to Sunday Star on May 23, Business Ethics Institute of Malaysia chairman Dr Zainal Abidin Abdul Majid commended Idris for his good intentions, but added that accepting such gifts would “still not fall in a good place if one were to truthfully embrace the practice of ethics and integrity”. 

While Transparency International (TI) Malaysia president Tunku Aziz Tunku Ibrahim felt that gifts to show appreciation or to develop personal relations should be restricted to fruit, flowers, chocolates and books, he too acknowledged the danger of abuse. 

He said this “charming gesture” could easily become “what the Chinese refer to as Quan Xi, when the intent is to gain an unfair advantage by giving gifts of high cash value. 

“This will distort the decision-making process and will contribute directly to corruption, and as such it has no place in what TI calls the national integrity system.” 

Kota Baru MP Datuk Zaid Ibrahim said Malaysians could “retain the intrinsic value and purity of the culture of giving if we can distance and alienate it from the practice of corruption disguised as gifts”. 

To avoid offending a bona fide giver, Aliran president P. Ramakrishnan said politicians should surrender gifts they receive when in office to a particular agency that keeps these gifts, for public scrutiny. 

Although there was an existing ruling by the Treasury requiring ministers and government officials to declare all gifts received and to leave them behind for disposal, Backbenchers' Club chairman Datuk Shahrir Samad said it might be prudent for the National Integrity Institute to review the current guidelines. 

He added that the Treasury could be responsible for auctioning such gifts and donating the proceeds to charity. 

Otherwise, he said the responsibility should be on the recipient, either to refuse all gifts or not to feel obligated the next time he had to make a decision involving the giver. 

“It would be so much simpler if we said ‘no gifts' at all.” 

Tunku Aziz agreed that with a ban, givers would know that civil servants and others bound by their service rules or codes were not allowed to receive any gift in any shape or form, including meals, visits to night spots and holiday destinations. 

Zaid added that a record must be kept for ministers, senior civil servants and judges of what they give and receive. 

Should those in public office accept gifts at public events? These souvenirs are, after all, given in full public view. 

Tunku Aziz maintains that the only gift they may receive in clear conscience is a basket of fruit or a bunch of flowers. 

Zaid said that since Abdullah's government was one of integrity, good values and good conduct there was no need for “thank you and congratulatory messages that cost RM20,000 each”. 

Both Zaid and Ramakrishnan said a simple thank-you letter would suffice unless the giver wanted to show off his connection or be remembered and rewarded later on. 

Except for those retiring, Ramakrishnan said it was ridiculous to give a gift to a minister or a department head for performing public duties. 

Should senior public officers accept gifts from support staff during official visits to departments under their purview? 

Ramakrishnan denounced the practice, saying promotions and vertical increments could be secured through expensive gifts and by “toadying up” to the heads of departments. 

Tunku Aziz said some subordinate staff felt constrained to organise golf tournaments with expensive prizes thrown in. 

“They seek financial contributions from illegal gambling operators, vice kings and other corrupters of society who naturally are more than happy to oblige in order to ensure their uninterrupted business activities.” 

Referring to the Anti-Corruption Agency investigation into a three-day senior officers meeting-and-family day and a golf tournament by getting contractors to sponsor some RM500,000, Shahrir said leaders should set an example by checking how such functions were funded. 

He agreed that the best “gift” for a department head was to be recognised as the most efficient and professional in the country, not as the one that gave the most expensive songket. 

The National Integrity Institute has the humungous task of trying to instil ethics and integrity in the public service and the business community – the taker and the giver. 

How does one turn over a giver for whom greasing the palm is good business practice because it reaps benefits and there is little fear of prosecution? 

The erosion of ethics has caused the once-in-a-while coffee money to evolve to under-the-table money and we are now stuck with upfront money, said Shahrir. 

He said that if the government wanted a public service with integrity and public servants who focussed on their job, apart from free or subsidised medical care, it must ensure proper housing and education for the children. 

“Otherwise, they will be open to bribes or will moonlight.” 

Tunku Aziz said that emphasis should be put on developing a sense of self-worth, personal honesty and integrity in discharging public duty. 

“Codes of conduct are not worth the paper they are written on unless their purpose is communicated clearly and systematically throughout an organisation and put in the context of ethical governance predicated on best global practices.” 

Becoming a nation where integrity is its keystone does not mean Malaysians have to give up their culture of giving gifts to show appreciation; there are enough needy children, disabled and poor people who need the nation’s generosity. 

The line between gift and bribe became blurred a long time ago. The leadership has to decide which is more important – a corrupt-free society or a cultural practice that is constantly abused. 

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