AS a follow-up to the article “Filling in the gaps of public sector governance” (The Star, March 1) by Datuk Latifah Merican Cheong, I would like to share my views on the forum in which I also participated.
Guest speaker Professor Kishore Mahbubani suggested that good governance can be measured by the increase in incomes and general standard of living of the population as a whole. He claimed that a decrease in income disparities between the rich and poor is not as important an indicator of good governance as socio-economic ones that showed the welfare of the poorest section of society had improved.
I would add that good governance is also reflected in the way the government spends its resources. A government that squanders resources through mismanagement and corruption cannot be said to be doing its job well even though the living standards of the people may have improved a little. It is not about what it does but what more it could have done had it managed its resources wisely.
In recent times, the general public has been astounded by the number of corruption cases involving civil servants, including top government officials, with the amount of money running into millions of ringgit. In one case, the amount involved was about RM600mil.
It seems the practice of outsourcing some of its supplies and services to the private sector has given senior government officials immense power over large sums of money. For example, the secretary-general of a ministry can sign contracts worth up to RM100mil, and this limit can be raised with permission from the Finance Ministry.
Unless the supervisory and monitoring agencies do their work properly, it is quite possible for fraudulent deals to pass through the net. This is reflected in the annual reports of the Auditor-General and in the findings of the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament.
But these oversight bodies cannot do more than make sure that payments are approved according to the financial procedures laid down. And even then, when non-compliance is exposed it is left to the central controlling agencies to take action.
This often results in a cover-up. For example, the Auditor-General in his 2014 report pointed out that the secretary-general of the Agriculture and Agro-based Industries Ministry had signed off a RM266.22mil contract without the authority to do so. However, the ministry explained that it was an error and not done with the intention of committing fraud. To my knowledge, this was accepted in good faith.
Public perception of the integrity of the civil service is crucial to gaining support for the government, especially as some decisions may require the public to accept higher taxes and make sacrifices to achieve long-term goals.
Several paper-writers and discussants as well as members of the audience at the forum raised the issue of chronic trust deficit in the government. However, others were quick to point out that the civil service had done a good job in the past and was still carrying out its work efficiently and honestly, except for a few “bad hats”.
Of course, not everything that the civil service is doing is bad or that everybody in it is corrupt. But even the most dedicated and honest civil servants may be frustrated and demoralised when they have to work under superior officers whom they know to be corrupt.
Making false claims and awarding contracts in exchange for kickbacks are some of the ways in which senior officers have abused their powers. The question that arises is how prevalent corruption in the civil service is, and clearly one does not know the answer to this. However, doing nothing is disastrous for the long-term image of the civil service and public trust in the government.
There is also the question of politicisation of the civil service. Civil servants, especially the upper echelons, work closely with their political masters in the making of public policy and in this way are seen to reflect the views of the government.
But civil servants are independent of their political masters in the sense that they operate within the conventions of a democratic system. Their duties require them to balance these responsibilities and advise their political masters accordingly.
Shrugging their shoulders in despair or saying that nothing can be done until there is a change of government is not the answer.
Various suggestions were made at the forum to improve public sector governance. These included introducing a Freedom of Information Act to increase transparency and public accountability, and reducing the size of the civil service by requiring that any proposal to set up a new department must be accompanied by proposals to abolish an existing department.
Also suggested were reducing centralisation of power by devolution to lower levels of government, and strengthening budgetary control over line ministries and departments by reducing the number of block grants and better supervision in the awarding of contracts.
The issue of overlapping of responsibilities by government agencies and the setting up of a large number of units in the Prime Minister’s Department, duplicating the functions of ministries charged with these responsibilities, was also raised.
I would suggest that it is time – actually past time – to act by setting up a commission of inquiry on ways and means to improve public sector governance.
The Malaysian Economic Association is to be congratulated for taking the initiative to hold this important forum.
DR MAVIS PUTHUCHEARY
Former associate professor
Faculty of Economics and