Saturday, December 3, 2011

Integrity and 1Malaysia by Dr. Chandra Muzaffar

It is seldom realised that integrity and governance are intimately linked to 1Malaysia. If 1Malaysia is about uniting diverse communities, integrity and governance are concerns which transcend ethnic boundaries and create a bond of solidarity among the people. There is no need to emphasise that the other part of the 1Malaysia slogan --- People First; Performance Now---- is also of direct relevance to governance.

Issues of integrity and governance have come to the fore once again in the wake of the Auditor-General’s Report for 2010. The annual Audit Report has over the years emerged as a regular reminder to the Malaysian nation of the importance of accountability and effective financial management in the public sphere. It has become an indispensable feature of Malaysian democracy.

If the Auditor-General’s Report commands credibility in our democracy, it is largely because we have been blessed with honest and competent Auditor-Generals for many decades. They have enjoyed a high degree of autonomy and independence in preparing their reports. The Malaysian public appreciates the quiet courage and the unwavering integrity that they have demonstrated in their work.

In his 2010 Report the Auditor-General, Tan Sri Ambrin Buang, acknowledges that 25 ministries and 35 government departments have improved their financial performance. While most ministries and departments have done well, the Auditor-General also noted a number of shortcomings. He attributed these to lack of supervision and poor training.

What is distressing is that many of the shortcomings have been recurring year in and year out. Government officials have been giving the same old excuses. It is this that has irked the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), Datuk Seri Azmi Khalid. He has rightly asked the government to buck up in the way public funds are managed.

How can one check the recurrence of shortcomings such as delays in approvals, inadequate planning, above market price purchases, ministerial and departmental over-spending, and so on? Better monitoring and more efficient and skilled staff would help. But perhaps a more effective solution is firm punishment of the culprit, regardless of his position. If a big head has to roll, let it be. Indeed, punishment should be as punitive and as public as possible. Transferring the wrongdoer to another department or freezing his salary increment for a year or two for a serious malpractice is totally unacceptable.

Sometimes, the real culprit may not even be a public servant. He may be just the pawn of his political master, a Minister or Deputy Minister or a Mentri Besar, whose hand remains hidden. There have been a couple of instances in the past where some evidence of this mode of operation had surfaced through the Courts. The PAC can perhaps play a role in exposing the involvement of politicians in such shenanigans.

In the ultimate analysis, it is the political elite who can set the right moral tone for the public services as a whole. If the core of the national leadership is clean, it will have a strong and powerful impact upon the rest of society. It is when that core fails to live up to the ethical principles that it professes, that individuals at all levels of society become emboldened “to dip their hands into the till.”

The crucial role of the leadership core in ensuring that society does not succumb to corruption is one of those eternal truths embodied in the teachings of Islam and all our religions. It is a shared spiritual and moral principle that should be put into practice in earnest if we want to build a society “united by virtues” to use the words of the late Professor Syed Hussein Alatas, who was perhaps one of the earliest scholars in Asia to disseminate awareness and understanding of corruption as a scourge to humankind. Incidentally, Alatas was also the first Malaysian academic to analyse the Auditor-General’s Reports in the sixties for wastages and leakages.

Professor Chandra Muzaffar is Chairman of the Board of Trustees of Yayasan 1Malaysia.

Petaling Jaya.

2 December 2011.

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