Beyond the rhetoric: Do we really dare face the reality of political corruption?

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Once upon a time, tears welled in Dr Mahathir’s eyes at the Umno general assembly when he warned party members to stay clear of money politics. His plea prompted a certain Rais Yatim to ask some uncomfortable questions in 1997: How is it that so much money is freely available? Where does it come from and who controls the purse strings?

Many of the leaders who won the last Umno elections in October 1996 must still be wearing crescentic smiles of victory. Those who lost in the covetous race are probably still licking their wounds. But the ever-persisting echo is Mahathir’s speech at the Umno general assembly.

The speech now lands on the conscience ofr every responsible Malaysian. Howcan we free our political system of money politics?

Corruption is said to be as old as man himself. The major scriptures are strewn with many a tale of corruption. In our times, political pay-offs, intrigue and abuse of power have been highlighted in the media and even in judicial pronouncements. In some Asian countries, top leaders are reported to have fallen from grace in the aftermath of judicial inquisitions into their previous acts of corruption.

But the power and money basically know very little hindrance. The two appear to be the elixir of politics. In the folds and crannies of social activities, corruption gnaws away. In a way, it has become a shady part of life and many modern societies are known to have come to accept it as part of life.

In this country, the level of corruption is said to be low. It is one way of saying that it’s there, but it’s tolerable. Yet, it takes the prime minister to admit that corrupt practices are being pursued by certain leaders and followers alike; that Malaysia will not become a great nation given the continued roles of corrupt leaders; that such leaders must go; that a reformation of sorts must take place.

His words in that assembly still ring loud and clear. This was not the only time when the PM as chief executive of the nation remarked graphically about corruption. At the advent of the BMF scandal in the mid-1980s, he described corruption as a “heinous” scourge.

This abhorrence for corruption is shared by his deputy, Anwar Ibrahim. He was reported as saying, “What worries us is that we may begin to accept this crime as a fact of life.” Anwar even went further to illustrate that for every government tender there is already a pre-supposition of graft: “If you want a contract, (you think) there is a fee. If you wish to get facilities, (you think) you also have to pay. If you want to win a case, (you think) there is also a fee to it.”

But the persisting query remains: What do we do now? Where do we go from here? His recent announcement that the ACA would be given extra powers is encouraging.

It is official thinking that abuse of power, nepotism and accepting pay-offs are all corrupt practices. The Prevention of Corruption Act 1961 and the Emergency (Essential Powers) No. 22 Ordinance 1970, though instrumental in taking care of some of the milestone corruption cases in the country in the past, are still lacking certain attributes to make them effective in fighting corruption and money politics. One can almost hear the rebuttal that it is not a problem of law; it is a problem of policy and implementation.

READ MORE:  Towards zero political corruption

Action needed

Whatever, we know that corruption or graft is dangerous to the well-being of a soceity. That political corruption begets a corrupt system needs no repetition. All that the PM, his deputy and other leaders have said about political and non-political corruption are valid.

But those statements of abhorenced of corruption, in whatever form, must be translated into action. It must find its way into the reformation which the prime minister stressed at the Umno general assembly. A little delving into that speech of his is pertinent here.

That memorable speech, punctuated by tears denoting, no doubt, his utter sadness at the level of corruption, had many sterling points but three may be singled out. First, corrupt political practices exist, and if not checked, they will destroy the country. Second, corrupt leaders must be rejected. And third, there must be reformation in respect of certain present practices.

It is no easy matter for a prime minister to admit that there is political corruption on his turf. This extraordinary openness must serve as a catalyst for a more open attitude towards change. How open can we be so that we understand our weaknesses better? Having understood these weaknesses, how do we remedy them? How do we go about pursuing this reformation?

These questions are but the few that come to mind in trying to understand political corruption and translating that understanding into action to eradicate corruption – whether it is agreed or not that graft can be totally eradicated. We should ensure that all systems work towards combating corruption by introducing reforms suited to policy needs.

The reality

But first, we should accept the reality that corruption is rife. We know this not only from what we hear through the political grapevine, but also through our daily contacts with society and with government bureaucracy.

We should be open enough to admit that corruption within a political hierarchy is as real as corruption within the administrative and business spheres. But corrupt practices in politics sing a different kind of dirt that brings about a different kind of destruction. And these practices are not easy to define within the present legal literature. Still, examples are many and easily discernible.

Money politics is nothing new. Leaders shot their warning salvoes more than two decades ago. Musa Hitam used to say that if money politics is not checked, the party would be decked by those flushed with cash but not by those equipped with the dedication to serve. Aziz Shamsuddin, a political secretary of the Prime Minister, having lost a divisional election a few years ago, declared that he was the victim of money politics.

Money politics is the use of money or material or services by an individual or group to vie for leadership in a political party. The practice of feeding and taking care of would-be voters before a party election has been practised for years without any reprimand. But the likes of money politics as recently practised was not witnessed until 1993.

Political corruption

Political corruption may share some similarities with ordinary corrupt practices. It may mean the act of receiving money or material benefits in exchange for services. For example, a leader in power may approve certain permits, land conversion or logging allocation in return for a fee. For this sort of transaction, the law under any of the two instruments referred to earlier is clear.

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What about the following scenario? A wants to be the head of a particular branch of his party. Having ample means at his disposal, he begins to garner support by distributing cash or material goods or by administering services that would endear himself to the voting members at the branch annual meeting.

As one climbs the party hierarchy – the divisional leadership, the supreme council membership, the vice presidency and so on – the stakes become more coveted and thus costlier. In the 1993 tussle, for example, there were open references to money being stuffed into envelopes and then into the pockets of delegates occupyingt various hotels while assistants kept busy checking the increasing lists of their masters’ supporters. This is corruption pure and simple. The act is as corrupt as when an individual bribes members of a board of interviewers to land a job in a civil service. But this strain of corruption is yet to be updated under the anti-corruption laws of the land.

Now take scenario two. B, the incumbent divisional leader decides to maintain his position at the division. He also distributes money, material and services, trying to prove how benevolent and caring he is as a leader. ‘Courses’ suddenly abound, and to attend them, busloads of ‘course participants’ are ferried to the desired destination. It must be understood of course that these participants are prospective voters in the next party big do.

Up to now, these practices have been regarded as political investment. The PM mentioned free “courses” , free trips, domestic and abroad, free permits and even corporate shares – all paid for by certain promoters. Lately, even allegations of free credit cards to certain ‘king-pins’ have been raised.

Sensitive issues

Of course, the question that is most difficult to answer is: How is it that so much money is freely available? Where does it come from and who controls the purse strings? Now, these are very sensitive issues and if not well presented may destroy the credibility if not the leadership of a good number of individuals. How frank can one be in delving into these ‘sensitive’ questions? But delve we must if that reformation is to mean anything for the future.

At the state level, the Mentri Besar or Chief Minister controls what is generally understood to be the party’s political coffers into which all political donations are supposed to be channelled. Are they, now? Normally its withdrawal or expenditure is subject to the directive of the MB/CM who is also the chief of the state party liaison committee. There is no system of control here. Receipts for donations are seldom issued to preserve anonymity.

The political rank-and-file in the state know that there is a loot to be shared. They also know which state has flush funds. Professional political promoters mushroom. Some claim to be able to control so many votes from so many divisions, and, for specifixc consideration, their votes could be had. Lists are drawn up. This is sweet music to the ears of aspiring office bearers. Money changes hands faster than the hand-shakes.

Most states practice the ‘sponsorship’ system when it comes to attending party conferences in the federal capital. A delegate rarely spends his own money during such activities. In this way, the best hotels in Kuala Lumpur have been patronised by the delegates who, by now, have come to expect 5-star service.

READ MORE:  Towards zero political corruption

This is the scenario that Dr Mahathir is aware of. And he knows the scene gets darker and more mind-boggling at each election season. As he rightly points out, it is not the leaders that the delegates are electing but money they dish out. In the end, the country will be governed by corrupt demagogues who attach a price to everything. In a flash, 2020 is in jeopardy.

Crack the whip!

For now, we can’t be sure whether those elected on 10 October 1996 are totally free from money politics. Let us just say that the emotional plea of the prime minister has hit a raw nerve. Will the delegates abide by that plea in the next three years? Human as we all are, it is doubtful that the desired end result will be achieved.

There appears to be only one way within the ‘reformation’ that has been announced. Crack the whip, get tough and mean business. Implement the law and where there is a lacuna – amend it. The suggestion that political corruption should be handled within the party may be feasible enough to an extent. For instance, rulings could be made to account for all political donations; or to ensure a clean and fair election.

But the finality of the law must take its course. There are things a political party simply cannot do in terms of investigation, propriety in evidence handling, fair and acceptable procedure, sentencing and a host of other things – even though it may handle disciplinary matters.

All political parties must embark on an on-going campaign. Perhaps the insertion of a new provision in the Societies Act 1966 on corrupt practices and money politics might be helpful. For instance, a member of any political party found to be involved in money politics shall be disqualified in all party elections at all levels.

If this is the chosen path, then the disciplinary committee of the party concerned must bd handled somewhat differently. The committee ought to be manned by legally-qualified personnel who do not have vested interests in the proceedings. If this cardinal principle is disregarded, then the whole exercise of conducting the disciplinary proceedings becomes quite futile as it cannot escape the possibility of bias. Rule of law demands that th proceedings be free of bias.

Total enforcement

There is a lesson to be learnt from previous “Keep Clean” campaigns undertaken by local governments: The declared campaign to combat littering must be followed up at the State and District levels. Anti-litter laws must be enforced indiscriminately and the rakyat must see the change on their kaki lima, at the pasar, downtown, uptown and every time the urge to flick away a cigarette comes to mind, the fear that the law will catch up must be there.

As for political corruption, two elements cannot be bypassed: first, there must be the political will to eradicate the scourge; second, once the modus operandi is mapped out there must be complete and total enforcement.

A mere plea may work once or twice. Thereafter, it tends to deaden the senses the same way another anti-litter announcement does.

Source: 1997 AM Vol17 no2

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