Sunday, November 1, 2015

The 2016 Budget and Combating Corruption by Dr Chandra Muzaffar

While there are some positive features in the 2016 Federal Budget, there is a glaring omission in it: there is hardly any mention of how the government intends to step up its battle against corruption or how it plans to reduce persistent leakages or enhance integrity in governance. And yet, integrity at all levels of society --- especially at the apex --- is the greatest challenge facing the nation today.

The Budget could have addressed this challenge from various perspectives. It could have proposed specific, concrete measures that government departments and state agencies would undertake in order to overcome problems arising from ministerial and departmental over-spending, above market-price purchases and delays in approvals --- all of which have often been highlighted by the Auditor-General in his comprehensive audit reports. The millions of ringgit lost year in and year out from acts of omission and commission of this sort could have been better utilized for the well-being of the people.

The lack of effective enforcement by state institutions has also cost us dearly. Instead of dealing with the culprits through punitive measures that serve as effective deterrents, the tendency is to choose a mild mode of punishment which has very little impact upon the wrongdoer. As a result, wrongdoings have become more and more serious over the decades. The human trafficking tragedy at the Malaysia-Thai border exposed earlier this year that resulted in the deaths of scores of Rohingyas is an example of what can happen when enforcement officers fail to carry out their duties mainly because they had compromised their integrity.

If such erring officers are not caught or punished severely, part of the reason may be because there is no institution that has the powers to conduct truly independent investigations into the misdeeds of enforcement personnel and enforcement agencies. There is an urgent need for such an independent institution which will have the full authority to act against enforcers whether they are from the police or immigration or some other agency. The present Enforcement Agency Integrity Commission (EAIC) does have the power to act effectively. This is why the Budget could have provided for the establishment of such an entity staffed with well trained personnel capable of adhering to the highest standards of integrity.

The Budget could have also perhaps allocated more resources for the enhancement of knowledge and skills among anti-corruption officials at the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) which by and large has discharged its duties with distinction. Such upgrading is imperative in an environment in which acts of corruption have become more sophisticated and
transcend national boundaries. The 1MDB episode is a case in point. Money-laundering today for instance has become far more complex than what it was two or three decades ago.

To put it in a nutshell, the 2016 Budget does not indicate that the powers-that-be are serious or sincere about combating high-level corruption and strengthening the sinews of integrity in Malaysian society. It is perhaps a manifestation of the major cause of the spread of the scourge of corruption: the lack of political will among those who wield power and influence.

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