Integrity: Prove commitment with action

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Half a dozen Aliran exco members spoke before a Parliamentary Select Committee on National Integrity chaired by Bernard Dompok. Find out what they had to say.

The Government of Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi must be congratulated for setting up this Parliamentary Select Committee to seek the views of Malaysians. We do hope that this kind of opportunity will also be extended for public participation before Bills are presented to Parliament. Let me emphasise that Aliran is indeed very pleased to appear before this Committee to submit our views.

Integrity is an important virtue that must be reflected in our daily conduct. It is this value that gives meaning to our very existence. Integrity is the cornerstone of the fifth tenet of the Rukun Negara, which is good behaviour and morality. It is good behaviour and morality that determine what kind of a nation we evolve into and what kind of leaders we will have at the helm. Exemplary conduct of leaders, without doubt, will shape the character of the nation and inspire its people to be worthy citizens. Real integrity is doing the right thing.

Having said that let us focus on some issues:

Corruption 

Corruption is something that challenges our integrity. Unless this scourge is fought relentlessly, without consideration for the vested interests of individuals – whatever their standing in society – we cannot convince Malaysians that we really care for integrity and that we are indeed trying our level best to inculcate this virtue seriously and sincerely.

There have been instances of corruption involving people of influence and high standing which have not been pursued vigorously. This lackadaisical approach has left many Malaysians wondering if we are really revolted by the curse of corruption.

Let me quote some examples:

  • The rumour that the Deputy Public Prosecutor (DPP ) had submitted his findings to the Attorney General (AG) that Rafidah Aziz and Rahim Tamby Chik had a case to answer with regard to corruption and abuse of power gained credence with  Mohd Ezam’s conviction under the Official Secrets Act. His conviction confirmed that it was no rumour but a statement of fact. But many wonder why  no charges have been filed against both of them after so many years.
  • The former Anti-Corruption Agency (ACA) head, Shafee Yahaya, had stated in open court that the ex-Economic Planning Unit head, Ali Abul Hassan, had been caught with large sums of cash, which could not be accounted for, in his drawers. According to Shafee, then Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir intervened in this case and ordered him to close his investigation. Why wasn’t the law allowed to take its own course? And why was no action taken against Mahathir for abusing his position – which clearly amounted to corruption? Wasn’t Anwar Ibrahim charged for similar so-called abuse of power when he was Deputy Prime Minister?
  • On 28 May 2004, the out-going ACA Director-General submitted the ACA’s report on 18 high-profile cases to the Attorney General. We were made to understand that the AG was expected to proceed with prosecution without further delay. But, to date nothing seems to have moved? Why? Is it because people of high standing and influence are above the law?

As long as the ACA comes under the Prime Minister’s Department, we can be assured that there will be political interference hindering the work of the ACA. This is why the ACA must be independent and answerable only to Parliament to be effective in curbing corruption. This is the only way to ensure that integrity will be the hallmark of the Abdullah administration.

We hope that this Committee will recommend that these three cases be investigated thoroughly and that proper action will be taken to instil confidence in the general public that the rules are applicable to all irrespective of position and power.

Judiciary 

It is of grave concern to us in Aliran that the Judiciary is under a cloud. It has lost its standing in society and it is viewed negatively for reasons that are valid. It is the general view that in the battle against corruption, the Judiciary has a crucial role to play.

It was once seen as an incorruptible institution of integrity but it has lost its stature, with the allegations circulated in a poison-pen letter in 1996. The letter listed a litany of serious allegations – 112 in all – against 12 judges. Of these allegations, 21 pertained to abuse of power, 39 to corruption and 52 to misconduct, immorality and other indiscretions. It claimed corrupt payments of RM50,000 with recipients graduating to accepting millions from named persons.

This poison-pen letter should have warranted a Royal Commission of Investigation. But this was not the case even though the writer of the letter was identified. In fact no charge was brought against the writer of the letter. A police investigation merely whitewashed the Judiciary by proclaiming that the allegations were “wholly untrue and baseless”. Aliran totally rejects this finding of the police. We call upon the government to set up a Royal Commission to get to the bottom of this matter.

And there are more disturbing incidences in the Judiciary.

You may recall the Ayer Molek Rubber Co case, which exposed a very serious, scandalous situation in the Judiciary. Lawyers were found to have filed their cases in such a way that they could manipulate their way to appear before preferred judges. This was said to be prevalent in cases involving commercial crimes. Doesn’t this suggest an element of corruption? Under the circumstances, would you believe that the judgments handed down were just and fair?

The New Zealand holiday episode of the Chief Justice, Tun Eusoff Chin, with a lawyer who had appeared before the same judge; the disclosure by the High Court Judge Datuk Muhammad Kamil bin Ahmad that he had received a directive over the phone to strike out an election petition without hearing it first; the manner in which a judge was chosen to hear the Anwar case and his conduct throughout the entire trial – all these cry out for justice.

It is imperative that the actions and conduct of judges must be beyond reproach and above suspicion – and be seen and perceived to be so –  for them to command the respect and confidence of the public.

The image of the Judiciary has been severely battered through the questionable conduct of some unethical judges. They have insidiously and brazenly destroyed an institution that was in the past viewed with admiration and awe for its high standard of ethics and sound judgment. There is now an urgent need to restore and safeguard the integrity and independence of the Judiciary.

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This can only be achieved when a Royal Commission is established in an honest attempt to restore its lost respect and confidence and to purge the Judiciary of all the negative elements plaguing it. Certain judgments and the conduct of some judges must be reviewed to bring back its past glory as an independent institution to which citizens can turn in confidence for justice. If we have the courage to do this, then the exercise that you undertake today will hold meaning for all of us.

Parliamentary reform needed 

To ensure national integrity, it is necessary to hold the government accountable for its actions. There are a variety of mechanisms that parliamentary democracies use around the world.

Votes of confidence 

First, parliament can refuse to pass legislation put forward by the government, or it can even remove the government, usually through a vote of ‘no confidence’. This is of course not going to occur since 91 per cent of the current members of parliament come from the Barisan Nasional. Moreover, as recently seen in the case of the Islamic Family Law Amendments (Federal Territory) Bill, the BN can use the party whip to ensure that all its MPs support a government bill.

Select committees

Governments can also make parliament accountable through the use of Select Committees.  In this regard, the government should be congratulated for setting up this parliamentary committee on national integrity, and two earlier ones – on National Unity in 2005 and on amendments to the Criminal Procedure Code and Penal Code in 2004.

Setting up such parliamentary committees is important since the business of government is huge these days, and we cannot expect every MP to be an expert in so many different issues. We hope that consultation with the people via public hearings of select committees will continue to be a characteristic of Datuk Seri Abdullah Badawi’s government.

Reform of Upper House

We believe that it is time for the Dewan Negara to be reformed so that it can become another check on government and so further ensure national integrity. In 1997, YB Lim Kit Siang called the Dewan Negara ‘the rubber stamp of rubber stamps’ and a ‘rubbish-bin for political has-beens, rejects and deadwoods’.  Indeed, not much has changed since then.

Other mechanisms and issues

We can also introduce other mechanisms to make government accountable and promote national integrity. Several mechanisms and practices in parliamentary democracies such as India’s and the UK’s come to mind.

a) Opposition Days

We would like to propose that a day be set aside each week every time Parliament is in session for the Opposition to raise questions. We can call it  ‘Opposition Day’ – or by whatever name, it doesn’t matter. This will give fair time and opportunity to raise and articulate the concerns of citizens who have voted for the Opposition. They are also Malaysians and deserve to be heard. Their grievances cannot be simply ignored.

b) Speaker and PAC Chairman from the opposition

As is practised in some democratic countries such as the UK and India, an Opposition MP should be appointed as Speaker of Parliament. There is nothing in law to prohibit such an appointment. In fact, in doing so, Malaysia will be viewed positively and deemed to be democratic in practice as well. There have been occasions when the decisions of the Speaker have raised some serious doubts over his fairness. This must be tackled; otherwise, people may lose confidence in Parliament.

In keeping with our desire to be transparent and accountable and to give meaning to this, it would be a good idea to also appoint someone from the opposition as Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee. If we want a watchdog to keep a keen eye on the accounts and expenditure, the appointment of an Opposition MP would be most appropriate. Who else will go through the accounts with a fine comb to unearth wrong-doings and abuse?

c) Regular attendance in Parliament   

Ministers and deputy ministers must ensure that they attend Parliament in order to answer questions. All too frequently they absent themselves and make a farce of question time.

d) Publicity for bills

When laws are promulgated, Parliamentary Bills should be given wide publicity and there must be sufficient opportunity for public debate and discussion before the Bills are presented to Parliament for consideration. The 219 elected MPs cannot claim to be the depository of all knowledge. Input from the public is very much in keeping with democratic process and practice. Public participation will allow for weaknesses and flaws in the Bills to be addressed. We must not forget that public views are indeed helpful. This was very clearly demonstrated in the case of the Domestic Violence Against Women and the Islamic Family Law bills.

e) Allocations and grants

We would like to emphasise that all elected Members of Parliament must be treated equally and accorded facilities without any discrimination. After all, they are elected by Malaysians and should be entitled to the same rights as guaranteed under the Malaysian Constitution. In particular, we think that it is patently wrong and indeed unjust to deny Opposition MPs the same allocations that are extended to the Barisan MPs. Likewise, development projects must not be withheld for areas held by the Opposition. Equal and similar subsidies and funds must be made available for  Opposition-controlled states as well.

Mr Chairmen, you were once sitting on the Opposition side and must understand how blatant this denial is. You must appreciate how terribly unfair this is.

In summary, if we are serious about national integrity, then the government has to be held accountable. Reforming parliament in the ways suggested above will go a long way towards achieving national integrity.

Double standards

When we talk about integrity, we must walk the talk. We seem unable to do this and, thus, when we speak passionately about the virtues of integrity, it comes across as paying lip service.

Party registrations

You would recall that Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM) applied to be registered as a political party some years ago. Why is it so difficult to approve its application? Why is it necessary to go to court to seek justice? And why was the court dragging its feet? Is it because it is an opposition party and therefore the Registrar and the Court are placing obstacles to frustrate PSM?

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Compare this to the applications of those closely aligned with the powers-that-be such as the Sarawak Progressive Democratic Party (SPDP), which was registered by the Registrar of Societies in record time – under a week.  You may also recall that when UMNO was deregistered, the application of UMNO Baru was approved so quickly – over a weekend – that it bewildered everyone.

It is double standards such as these that bring into question our integrity.

University students and freedom

We have often been told that the young are the future leaders of the nation. But do we allow our young the leeway and scope to develop their potential and grow up as thinking and discerning individuals.

Our university undergraduates are too restricted. They are not allowed to do so many things that are natural to undergraduates elsewhere. In fact, freedom was very much a norm in our universities until the infamous Universities and University Colleges Act (UUCA) was introduced. It took away the students’ initiative, curbed the growth of leadership qualities, and interfered in their civic activities.

Even the Students’ Council elections in the universities have been reduced to a sham. Critical students are hounded and denied the right to speak up when they try to expose the abuses and restrictions. Those who dare to be true to their conscience are served with show-cause letters and dragged before disciplinary boards. Undergraduates have been warned, fined and even suspended for exercising their democratic rights.

Some of these cases are still pending (even if the hearings have been indefinitely postponed). Aliran would like all charges against these students to be dropped. These charges make a mockery of our human rights.

His Majesty, the Yang DiPertuan Agong Tuanku Syed Sirajudddin Syed Putra Jamalullail, speaking at the 13th International Conference for University Adminstrators earlier this month, observed: “A silent culture is not a healthy culture in an institution of higher education. The ability to view ideas or grievances should be cultivated as this is a platform to practise expressing views at the international arena.” (Bernama, 7 February 2006)

The gagging effect of the UUCA has retarded the intellectual development of our future leaders and lowered the prestige of our universities internationally. It is thus proposed that the UUCA be repealed for the sake of real development in Malaysia.

Lack of transparency and accountability

Privatisation may not be the answer for all our economic ills, especially when profit-making ventures and bodies are privatised. There was no valid reason for privatising bodies such as Telekom Malaysia and Pos Malaysia, just to quote two examples.

No justification for privatisation

Why should the profits generated by these entities be handed over to private citizens? It has not helped the public one bit. It has only whetted the appetite of greedy individuals to make more profit at the expense of Malaysians. In fact, the government should have held on to these revenue-earning bodies so that the additional income could be used to provide facilities and services for the public.

No open tenders

What is very disturbing is the fact that projects are given out without open tender, resulting in hiked-up prices and poor quality workmanship and in certain cases the projects have been abandoned. You may recall the collapsing computer labs. People without any expertise or experience often get selected and they in turn subcontract these projects to others at exorbitant profits. It is this system of awarding projects without open tender to greedy people that is responsible for the drain on our financial resources. A lot of our wealth has been squandered in this manner.

Regulatory system needed

There seems to be no limit to greed. Even when these people make huge profits it doesn’t stop them from requesting for periodic increases in rates and tariffs without providing any justification. This issue must be tackled. There is an urgent need to set up a regulatory system that is well represented by consumers, NGOs, accountants, etc to examine the need for higher tariffs.

We also need to examine all the agreements and concessions that the government had gone into with private bodies. It is alarming that the interests of Malaysians were not of paramount importance in these dealings. When people go into business they take on a risk. If they make  profits, well and good. On the other hand, if they incur losses, they have to shoulder and absorb these losses as a matter of course. But here we have agreements signed by the government guaranteeing compensation to make good the losses of favoured companies. Isn’t this bewildering? It only encourages the project undertakers not to be responsible or thrifty in their expenditure, knowing that there is no way they are going to suffer a loss.

If we are serious and sincere in promoting integrity, then a Commission must be set up to review the entire privatisation process and the manner in which contracts have been awarded and to determine how justified the government was in entering into agreements that favoured the concessionaires.

For a government that claims to champion integrity, the present administration has done little in concrete and practical terms to improve transparency in important economic matters. This is especially evident when it comes to privatisation, where secret contracts are signed with crony companies and concession agreements are kept secret.

The history of privatisation in Malaysia is littered with examples of lack of transparency and accountability.

But lets not go too far back. Instead, let’s take a look at a few examples of what is happening now:

Penang Outer Ring Road

Last December, the Cabinet approved the RM2 billion Penang Outer Ring Road, construction of which will be undertaken by Peninsular Metro Works Sdn Bhd. It is disturbing to find out that this RM2 billion contract has been awarded without an open tender. At a recent conference, complaints were aired that contractors have to pay bribes all the way from securing the contract to collection of payment.  There are also questions being raised as to what experience the PORR concessionaire has with similar huge highway projects.

In this regard, we wonder why there is so little investment in public transport in this congested island and elsewhere in the country. The buses in Penang, for instance, are in deplorable condition and the services very poor. At a time when oil reserves are dwindling, leading to higher oil prices, surely it makes more sense to promote public transport rather than private vehicle ownership.

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Water privatisation

We are deeply concerned that water has been privatised. The right to water is a basic human right and it is disturbing that the government has granted control over water management to private firms in several states. Again, many of the concession agreements are secret.

At the same time, firms are using these agreements to claim tariff hikes on the basis of what they claim to be successful reduction of leakages (non-revenue water or NRW). There is no independent audit to verify such claims. If tariff hikes are refused, the government is often required to compensate these private firms. Why are these concession agreements being kept secret and why is there no independent audit verification of claims of NRW reduction?

Health care

A major revamp in the way the government finances health care is in progress. Consultants are being appointed to design a blueprint for the proposed health care financing mechanism. But the identity of the consultant has not yet been revealed (his identity has since been revealed), neither were the terms of reference disclosed. (note: the TOR has since been revealed.) Such lack of transparency is mind-boggling – especially when one considers that the new fund will handle billions of ringgit.

River privatisation

In Selangor, three major rivers of strategic importance to the state – Sungai Selangor, Sungai Kelang and Sungair Langat – are to be privatized in May to three firms.  Under 30-year concessions, these three firms will manage a river each and ensure cleanliness. They will be required to repair riverbanks damaged by sand excavation and deepen the rivers to prevent overflowing and flooding.  In return, they will be allowed to dredge the rivers for sand and to carry out ‘controlled development projects’ to generate revenue.

The government says it has already identified the three firms but their names have not yet been disclosed.  There is a serious lack of transparency over the concession agreements. How are the concessionaires going to keep the rivers clean when the real sources of the pollution – industrial effluents, animal waste, sewage and rubbish – are not tackled? And what kind of ‘controlled development projects’ are they going to undertake?

And again, why is there no open tender?  And why are our rivers, which are precious natural resources, being privatised in the first place?

Media freedom and national integrity

Media freedom is crucial in a democracy. This is to ensure an informed society and to allow citizens to make informed decisions on matters that affect their daily lives. Thus, easy access to information by members of society is vital.

Equally important, free and responsible media are crucial in the context of a society like ours where political leaders have expressed publicly their desire for good governance, transparency and public accountability.

The media and civil society must be more vigilant in monitoring possible occurrences of corruption within the government and the private sector. To do this, journalists should have enough room to exercise investigative journalism without fear or favour.

While we are fully aware of the importance of tempering media freedom with responsibility, we feel that the legal shackles – including the licensing provisions – that have restrained the media all this while must be dismantled. Thus, the Printing Presses and Publications Act (PPPA) must be repealed. In this regard, the Multimedia and Communications Act, which govern the broadcasting industry, must also be re-examined so that the illiberal elements in the law can be expunged.

The PPPA, as it stands now, has been responsible for the prevalence of a culture of fear and self-censorship among journalists. The immense power that the Internal Security Minister wields has also given birth to a dangerous trend of increasing concentration of media ownership in the hands of political parties and those close to the government. This stifles the diversity of viewpoints essential to a democracy.

The media monitoring that Charter 2000-Aliran has conducted so far shows that the climate of fear that prevails within the journalistic fraternity has encouraged self-censorship and sycophancy among certain journalists and editors. Such a climate is detrimental to media freedom and responsibility.

Moreover, the recent cases of the ‘nude ear squats’ scandal and the publication of the controversial caricatures of Prophet Muhammad have resulted in state interference in the media. The suspension or closure of a newspaper has a chilling effect on journalists and newspapers owners – which, in turn, spawns a culture of fear and censorship.

The Official Secrets Act also needs to be reviewed so that only information pertaining to security matters is protected from public scrutiny. Experience has shown that the Act, under which ‘official secrets’ have been vaguely and broadly defined, has been abused to protect misdeeds within the government.

It is in this light that we urge the government to enact a Freedom of Information Act to enable a free flow of information between the governing and the governed.

Conclusion

Over and above all these comments, we believe that the country should be guided by the principles of the Rukun Negara. Unfortunately, there is no real effort to put these principles into practice e.g. the supremacy of the constitution and the rule of law. While our comments have been directed mainly to the government because the kind of issues raised, we also think it is important to nurture a truly civil society founded on a bedrock of justice and peace, where no one is left out and suffers from poverty and deprivation. But for this to happen, it is not enough just to memorise the Rukun Negara. We must give flesh and blood to the lofty principles of the Rukun Negara and fill our people with its spirit.

We would like to believe that you will be able to translate all that you have heard today into action. It is our earnest hope that you will sincerely strive to realise this so that when your children think of fairness and integrity, they will think of you. Let me end this session by sharing this quotation from Albert Einstein: “The most important human endeavour is the striving for morality in our actions. Our inner balance, and even our very existence depends on it. Only morality in our actions can give beauty and dignity to our lives.”

This is an edited version of Aliran’s presentation to the Parliamentary Select Committee on Integrity at Dewan Sri Pinang, Penang on 27 February 2006.  Aliran was represented by P. Ramakrishnan, Francis Loh, Mustafa K. Anuar, Anil Netto, Angeline Loh, Sarajun Hoda and Andrew Wong. 

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