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'Strong political will needed to combat corruption in M'sia'

Publication Date : 19-02-2014

 

Political will is key in the fight against corruption, said speakers at an anti-graft forum on Saturday.

Realistically, political will needs to be nurtured. There are entrenched interests, habits, and even fears (working against it). We need to change the way things are being done,” said Senator Paul Low at the Malaysian Institute of Integrity here.

He also urged the public to fan the "flame of political will" into a "bushfire" to combat corruption.

The forum, titled “Givers & Takers: The Integrity-Corruption Continuum”, saw government representatives, academics, anti-corruption agencies and citizens sharing their insights on graft prevention.

As minister in the prime minister’s department in charge of governance and integrity, Low addressed the audience’s concerns about corruption, which started with a participant firing an opening salvo on the secretive nature of big-budget dealings.

"I can understand the need for national security, but why are discretionary powers at the top unaccountable to all?” he asked.

Low agreed that disclosure of information is a key issue in the fight against corruption: “The more transparent we are, the better. The balance lies in what needs to be disclosed and what does not, purely because it’s either in the national interest or for security reasons.

However, he acknowledged that some parties hide behind the excuse of ‘national security’ when they are uncomfortable with releasing certain details.

“But I also believe in the right to information, so we are looking at this matter. Like in the case of private sector partnerships, the terms of a signed concession should be transparent to the public,” he added.

Performance Management and Delivery Unit (Pemandu) anti-corruption director Ravindran Devagunam agreed that freedom of information should be Malaysia’s common goal, and urged civil society to push and press for a greater availability of information.

The PCORE (The Association of Voices of Peace, Conscience, and Reason) event had featured a question-and-answer session with Low, Ravindran and anti-corruption consultant Prof Jon Quah.

Institute of Democracy and Economic Affairs (IDEAS) CEO Wan Saiful Wan Jan, who served as the session moderator, then queried the plenary speakers on why it was tough to gain access to information.

Low attributed it to the prolonged “culture of the Official Secrets Act”, and said the civil service required a culture change to enable an adequate response to said information.

"It took me almost three months in Cabinet to push for the issue of publishing private negotiations online. You might say it’s a very simple thing, but I had to argue its benefits,” he said of the process.

Though Ravindran believed that civil service is ready for change, he admitted that it takes time to restructure the way they work and operate: "We need sustained political will to get us there."

However, a NGO representative from C4 (The Center To Combat Cronyism and Corruption), Cynthia Gabriel, was troubled over how the ball kept being thrown back to civil society.

“There’s only so much civil society can do, especially if there is no structure or working, institutionalised mechanisms. If you want civil society to be effective partners, streamline the process so they know what needs to be done,” she urged.

Ravindran then clarified that political will always has multiple forces pushing it in “different directions” due to vested interests.

“But in order for political will to sustain itself, civil society needs to work with us in a very structured fashion to show the Prime Minister where they stand.

Then he can rely on them, and not necessarily only his political allies, to enforce his political will - that’s really critical,” he added, explaining that sustained action should be based on facts and figures, and “stand by” various government agencies to allow enforcement.

A former civil servant, known only as Selva, said it was necessary to revisit the pay scheme of immigration officers or lower officers, as they are directly exposed to the temptations of corruption.

While Low agreed that pay needs to be improved, he stressed that adequate remuneration is not the only way to ensure that the civil service is corruption-free.

Fighting corruption has to do with reducing opportunities and reducing discretion, and having effective enforcement so crime does not pay. People also have different standards of greed, so an improvement of salary will not eliminate (graft) completely,” he said.

Prof Quah said the immigration, police and custom departments are “wet agencies”, where it is extremely tempting to be corrupt in the absence of proper monitoring.

And in his research on Asian countries, surveys conducted among civil servants indicated that low salary was a key factor for their participation in corruption.

In 1998, a judge in Mongolia was paid USD50 (RM165) per month. One in three judges there are homeless, and need to live in their office. Under those conditions, if you go to the judge with a bribe, he will rule in your favour,” said Prof Quah of his findings as a UNDP consultant.

However, it is not enough to just raise salaries. If you’re paid enough and you’re still greedy, those caught must be punished,” he added.

The Parent Action Group for Education (PAGE) Malaysia chairman, Noor Azimah Abdul Rahim, also queried if the prime minister’s department had any findings and concerns regarding the Education Ministry.

In reply, Low said he had initially placed the ministry at fifth place on his anti-corruption programme list, due to its considerable size and large budget of RM50bil.

When I presented it to Deputy Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin, he asked why the education ministry was not higher up on the list! Now, I’m preparing the transformation map for the ministry,” he said, adding that stakeholders like Noor Azimah might be consulted in the process.

After the session, retiree Lim Yaw Meng said the forum was very educational.

I had not known what Low was doing in government to fight corruption, so it was good to get some insights. For those apprehensive about graft, it’s clear that action is being taken, but it takes time,” said the 72-year-old.

However, he expressed disappointment with the lack of political will to fight grand corruption despite the establishment of structures: “For instance, the PKFZ (Port Klang Free Zone) embezzlement of 12.5 billion ringgit (US$3.7 billion) - why are those involved getting off (the hook)? There is no push for action.

Muhammad Luqman, a 17-year-old A-Levels student, found the question-and-answer sessions interesting and said schools should host talks pertaining the issue of corruption. 

For a university admissions interview, the panel asked me what integrity was, and I couldn’t really answer the question. Maybe that’s why my mother brought me here today - now I have an idea of what integrity actually is,” he said.

As for actor Mano Maniam, he enjoyed the final keynote by former chief justice of Malaysia, Tun Abdul Hamid Mohamad, for its macro viewpoint and interesting perspective.

However, I’m a bit disappointed with the voices of authority present. But I understand the limitations and constraints they have when facing the public,” said Mano, who attended the forum specifically to hear about the Government’s efforts in combating corruption.

Asked to pinpoint unaddressed issues, he said they were not definite about “timeframes, individuals, issues and outcomes” of current anti-corruption measures.

The 69-year-old has followed the issue for about 40 years, as he attended one of Malaysia’s very first seminars on corruption, which was chaired by former chief justice Raja Azlan Shah at the Hotel Majestic in the mid-1970s.

Institutional changes have been made, but it is not enough. As long as the big issues and big fish are not touched, and the public is not given all the information, we will continue to question the system,” he added.

 

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