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Will the present government add to the legacy of corruption?

Steve Oh

 

corruptionA recent survey revealing Malaysia tops 30 countries where business was lost because a bribe was not offered is merely confirming a Malaysian folklore.

It is common knowledge that corruption occurs across a wide section of Malaysian society from the top to the bottom. A royal commission into the police not long ago has certainly revealed this to be the case within the police force.

Everyone has a story to tell of some corrupt incident they know, especially when they meet at the coffee shop.

Someone I met once and have never seen again told the story of how he was involved in being the courier for million dollars cash deliveries to certain important people, in a mega project in the steal of very early morning. It sounded like a scene from a James Bond movie – this character zooming about through the lonely streets making deliveries when everyone was asleep.

Incidentally corruption perception indices only tell you a half-truth. Perception is not everything. Corruption is a honed art.

Malaysia’s recent improved ranking means nothing. Who knows what happens in secret whereas Scorpene, Cowgate and other public scandals involving politicians are still fresh in the public mind.

The Deepak scintillating revelations with more to come are only the tip of the iceberg.

The skeletons are beginning to fall out of an over-crowded closet. The ‘Carpetman’ is lifting the carpet and exposing what have been swept under and one hopes the dignified silence is not because secret negotiations are underway.

Inherited from previous administrations?

In his Malay Mail interview, Prime Minister Najib Abdul Razak says corruption is a legacy he has been saddled with. It didn't read like an interview to me but propaganda. The questions were contrived like in television direct selling advertisements. It was too clever – over-acting – to be convincing.

No leader should blame legacy when the people have also given them a legacy of public trust and the mandate to eradicate corruption. Dr Mahathir Mohammed invoked the fear of God into the public servants and promised a Bersih, Cekap dan Amanah (clean, efficient and trustworthy) administration.

But what happened to the legacy of public trust because we know what happened after the famous slogan, which happens to be my favourite if only it weren’t so phony in the wisdom of hindsight.

The PKFZ court case where a former BN leader has been charged is still in progress. But many of the other corruption scandals occurred during PM Najib’s watch. And he himself is the subject of allegations of involvement in the Scorpene scandal.

Who knows if Altantuya Shaaribuu may still be alive today had she spilled the beans to the media. Though dead, she still cries for justice which will come in time.

The ‘perception’ of corruption

Only a very, very small handful of the country’s former leaders have been convicted for corruption. Others have been tainted either with the suspicion or allegation thereof. Lack of evidence is often cited but as an accountant with substantial experience in auditing, I find that incredible.

There is a plethora of public documents gathered by various NGOs to warrant further investigations of corrupt dealings but the Malaysian Anti Corruption Commission (MACC), even with an increased budget, has not reassured the public that it is following those leads.

It is the whistleblowers who are investigated instead and the persecution of Suaram illustrates the humbuggery of Najib’s excuse of corruption as a legacy. It is more likely his government will add to the legacy than subtract cases of corruption as the scandals pile.

Accountants in the battle frontline

The pursuit of the corrupt by diligent and honest accountants is an occupational hazard – perhaps as dangerous as investigative journalism – in a hostile and corrupt environment. It could prove fatal.

I had an accountant friend, a university mate, who was killed in Malaysia while pursuing a dishonest storeman in the company he worked in. He was a brilliant student at university.

We know about Jalil Ibrahim (left), an accountant and the Bank Bumiputera assistant general manager who was murdered in Hong Kong in 1983.

Jalil was a decent Malaysian, an honest man whose values were shaped by the highly-regarded Royal Military College, the university in Christchurch, and subsequent post-graduate studies in the United States.

But in a corrupt world where he had been sent to Hong Kong to audit the Bumiputera Malaysia Finance (BMF) accounts, Jalil became a martyr against the war on corruption.

As the cliche goes, I have seen it all, well almost. I once was an accountant with a professional pedigree from two of the top five international accounting firms and ran the finance department for large companies in Malaysia and abroad.

So while I can’t write on rocket science I do have some useful inside knowledge on corruption, also having run my own businesses.

The truth is corruption is detectable, preventable and treatable.

In China corrupt officials are shot

Corruption whether an act of dishonesty committed alone or in collusion with others is a serious moral failing. It is white-collar crime more costly to its victims than a bank heist. Corruption costs the country untold billions.

It is an act of betrayal to the nation. That is how the Chinese government sees it and that is why they execute their convicted corrupt officials.

We have seen clerks and country leaders charged and convicted for corruption. High or low, they were all caught and punished because a no-nonsense anti-corruption agency will be able to put the corrupt behind bars.

What makes the difference between those caught and those left unpunished depends on who does the chasing and where. In a country like Singapore where there is strict rule of law as well as the political will to convict, the corrupt will not get away scot-free.

This is where enforcement in Malaysia lags behind our neighbour. In fact, the Singapore enforcement authorities are so efficient that Singaporeans have been arrested for corruption abroad.

In countries like France, Italy and Taiwan, national leaders have been convicted and jailed for corruption.

Recently when I saw the reputedly corrupt leader of one African nation warn the crowd that he would punish the corrupt I almost choked on my TV dinner. It becomes a joke when you have a country leader who is infamously corrupt and the anti-corruption agency reports to him.

Any anti-corruption agency must therefore be above political interference and report to Parliament, and must itself be subject to checks and balances.

Curious case of patient treating doctor

While I believe corruption is curable, ‘physician heal thyself’ nonetheless does not work. After all, generally the doctors themselves do not like to treat their own family members either.

A government cannot investigate itself but has to be investigated by an independent body that reports to another independent body. Until that happens, corruption will not just be a legacy but a lasting one.

There is no shortage of ideas to stem corruption but only lacking the political and moral will to properly treat the sickness.

If those attempting to expose corruption appear to be the ones stymied and punished by the authorities, then members of the public may get the impression that it is the authorities themselves who have something to hide.

Getting cops to wear anti-rasuah badges is not good enough. Corruption-free zones must extend to every nook and cranny of the various ministries and even into the office of the prime minister himself.

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