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Hot air over corruption

It’s time to cut out the rhetoric and walk the talk instead

by P Ramakrishnan
Aliran Monthly Vol 25 (2005): Issue 11

start_quote (1K)It is rather unfortunate that abuse of power has become synonymous with the Barisan Nasional simply because they have been in power for so long.
end_quote (1K)

P Ramakrishnan, seen here receiving the National Integrity medal on Aliran's behalf from Chief Secretary to the Government Tan Sri Samsudin Osman.

It is with the greatest sense of humility that I accept this prestigious award. The Integrity Award is all the more significant, coming as it does, on the United Nations International Day Against Corruption.

Aliran thanks Transparency International Malaysia for this great honour. You have for the first time chosen an organisation, departing from the past five years’ practice of awarding the Integrity Award to distinguished individuals of integrity and honesty. We are profoundly grateful to Transparency International Malaysia for this recognition of Aliran’s role in the fight against corruption.

Let me also mention that there are many individuals, groups and organisations who are part of this crusade against corruption. We are also mindful that many unfortunate Malaysians have fallen victim and have been unfairly denied their just dues because of corruption. I accept this award on their behalf as well.

Words don't match deeds

Corruption has been with us for a long time. In spite of pious intentions and passionate declarations to wage an unrelenting war against corruption, this scourge is very much part of our lives, and it seems that it is thriving quite healthily.

And if we take into consideration Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index, we have been very successfully sliding backwards. In 1995 we were ranked at 23, in 2003 we dropped to 37 and currently we are ranked at 39. Some will dismiss this as a mere perception but you and I know what the reality is.

Time and time again, our leaders have assured us that a determined war will be waged to root out this curse from our midst. But very often, words don’t seem to match their deeds.

When Aliran was formally launched on 12 August 1977, one of our major concerns was corruption. Indeed, the very next month, we came out with a statement regarding “Corruption in high places”. We observed that “a tolerant attitude towards corruption, on the part of the power-holders, often results in loss of faith in the government of the day.” Since then, it seems, the scenario hasn’t changed much! Aliran had then congratulated the National Bureau of Investigation (NBI) - as the Anti-Corruption Agency (ACA) was then known - for arresting a retired Air Force Captain on charges of corruption related to the purchase of Northrope jet aircraft. We had hoped that it would “lead to earnest investigations against other important persons allegedly involved in the same episode.” We are still hoping – for it is said hope springs eternal in the human breast!

I mentioned earlier that words do not match their deeds. Let me elaborate.

In his 1978 New Year address, the then Prime Minister, Datuk Hussein Onn, came out with a resounding message: “ All forms of corruption, however small, must be reported at once because this is a social disease. If this disease is not controlled, it could bring ruin and destruction. It will also taint the good name of the government and the nation. As the head of the government, I shall not protect and forgive anyone who commits any such offence. Let the Court decide on his offence and let the laws mete out the punishment.”

Aliran responded that “it would take more than good sentiments to achieve the goals he had laid out”. This statement was proved to be correct later.

Later that year, in anticipation of an impending General Election, Aliran launched a campaign on 14 June 1978 to request all candidates to declare their assets to the public as part of our drive against corruption.

On that day at 8.30 am the Secretary of Aliran posted nearly 300 envelopes containing the following:

  • A news-sheet in Malay and English discussing important aspects of the Aliran campaign against corruption, which also requested all election candidates to declare their assets to the people, and
  • A press statement clarifying general ideas connected with the campaign including the procedure for declaring the assets.
But even six days after they had been mailed, not a single person had received the material. Aliran, in a press statement, revealed, “Envelopes addressed to places in the vicinity of the G.P.O. Penang have not been delivered! Among those who have not received the mail are His Majesty The Yang Di Pertuan Agong, Their Majesties the Rulers, Their Excellencies the Governors, the Prime Minister and the Judges.”

Our effort in waging a war against corruption was sabotaged by the authorities. What was galling was the fact that the Barisan Nasional had adopted “Clean Government” as its slogan for the elections and pulled a dirty trick on us.

Synonymous with BN

It is rather unfortunate that abuse of power has become synonymous with the Barisan Nasional simply because they have been in power for so long. If critics are cynical about their often-repeated outrage against corruption, they are justified.

You would recall that, some years ago, a rumour was in circulation that the DPP had submitted his findings to the AG that Rafidah Aziz and Rahim Tamby Chik had a case to answer with regard to corruption and abuse of power. But this rumour was vigrously denied by the authorities. But when Mohd Ezam circulated these documents not long ago, he was arrested, charged, convicted and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment for possession of documents that were classified under the Official Secrets Act.

The bottom line in this case was that there was such a document which confirmed the allegations of corruption. That classified document implied that the DPP after investigating had recommended that charges be framed against them. But the case did not proceed. Why? Was it because top-notch politicians were involved? It is obvious that the OSA is meant to cover up crony corruption, abuse of power and wrongdoings. That is probably the reason why they stamp “Sulit” (Confidential) on documents and hide everything!

This particular episode demonstrated what is meant by selective prosecution. And it was not the only one. This is why sometimes we wonder how serious the government is in tackling corruption.

Double standards

There was another case of another personality caught with large sums of cash in his drawers which could not be accounted for. This was disclosed by the former ACA head in open court. According to Shafee Yahaya, action was taken to raid Dr Mahathir’s “senior officer’s office” following “än official complaint by an aggrieved party” and what was undertaken “was officially required of the ACA”.

But Mahathir, as related by Shafee, ordered the former ACA head to close his investigation against the ex-Economic Planning Unit head, Ali Abul Hassan Sulaiman. We then asked, “Äre we serious in fighting corruption? Mahathir himself had reviled and ranted - and even shed tears - against corruption and money politics. Why then did he abort this investigation?”

How different was Mahathir’s alleged conduct from the abuse of power charges filed against Anwar?

To this day, I haven’t read any denial of this episode by Dr Mahathir or rebuttal against this allegation. What are we to conclude?

Then there was the case of 18 high profile cases of corruption still waiting to be prosecuted. According to the mainstream media, on 28 May 2004, the ACA director-general had submitted the ACA’s report on the 18 high-profile cases to the Attorney-General, who was expected to proceed with prosecution without further delay. But, to date, nothing seems to have moved.

On 28 November 2004, Aliran moved a resolution demanding an explanation “from the Prime Minister as to why the Attorney-General has been delaying the prosecution of the persons involved.”

A year later, on 27 November 2005, we moved another resolution strongly urging “the Prime Minister to direct the A-G to explain to the people of Malaysia why he has sat on the ACA’s report for so long”.

When the case had been investigated and was waiting for prosecution, why this foot dragging? Compare this again to Anwar’s corruption case. How fast our justice system moved then and how quickly the A-G secured a conviction.

It is this kind of double-standards that undermines our confidence in the justice system and questions the credibility of the government in combating corruption.

See no evil, hear no evil...

In the battle against corruption, the judiciary has a crucial role to play. It must be seen as an incorruptible institution of integrity - but it has lost its lustre with the allegations circulated in a letter in 1996. It 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 to investigate these allegations but this was not the case. The police investigation merely whitewashed the judiciary by claiming that the allegations were “wholly untrue and baseless”. But why was a High Court Justice forced to resign? Why wasn’t the author charged for circulating false information? After all Lim Guan Eng was charged with this offence. Why the double standards? Was it the fear that dirt would be revealed in open court?

There was also the case of the Chief Justice holidaying in New Zealand with a well-known lawyer who had his arm around the CJ. This was conduct unbecoming. When this was raised recently in Parliament, the Minister in the PM’s department, Datuk Kayveas incredulously replied, “(I do) not want to dig up previous issues involving judges which we are not aware (of). If you have the evidence, please forward it to us and we will look into it.”

He reminded me of the three monkeys: see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil!

If he hadn’t seen it, then he should perhaps subscribe to Aliran Monthly. We have published these pictures on numerous occasions.

Then there is the case of the Chief Justice ringing up the High Court to direct the Judge to dismiss the election petition. This is clearly interference and abuse of authority. How different was this from the allegations of corruption made against Anwar?

When the abuse is from the top and nothing is done, what kind of a perception can one have of the Judiciary? The system is supposed to dispense justice, but when it violates its sacred duty, would you trust their judgment? Can you be blamed if you felt that a certain decision was unfair? 

Certainly there are many examples that leave you bewildered.

One recent example, as reported in NST ( 28 October 2005), was of a man who had robbed a security guard at knife-point of RM50, his watch and his MyKad. He was sentenced to 12 years’ jail and two strokes of the rotan for armed robbery.

He was also sentenced to eight months’ jail for failing to produce his identity card when requested by a policeman.

The judge ordered both the sentences to run consecutively. This would mean he would have to serve 12 years and 8 months.

On the other hand, we have another recent case of the former Ministry Secretary-General convicted on two counts of abetment of criminal breach of trust (CBT) and cheating involving RM11 million relating to a project for the hardcore poor. In the first instance, he was “found guilty of cheating then second Finance Minister, Datuk Mustapa Mohamad, by deceiving him into believing that the proposed RM9 million investment” was viable.

On the second account, he was found guilty of having had a motive not to disclose to the Finance Minister the fact that RM2 million had been invested without the Minister’s approval.

He was sentenced to five years’ jail for each offence. The sentences were to run concurrently. This would mean he would have to serve five years!

We don’t know what the rationale for this disparity in sentencing is - but you get a feeling, if one is to be involved in crime, he should go in in a big way. On the other hand, it appears, petty crimes must be dealt with ruthlessly. 

Scandalous bailouts

Then you have the bailouts involving Malaysian International Shipping Corp Bhd (MISC) and Malaysia Airlines (MAS) to quote two examples. The Petronas-controlled national shipping carrier Malaysian International Shipping Corp Bhd (MISC) stepped in in 1998 to bail out Mirzan Mahathir’s floundering and debt-laden shipping empire. The government’s bailout of Tajudin Ramli’s stake in MAS was just as scandalous. The Finance Ministry paid RM8 per MAS share when the market price was RM3.62 on 22 December 2000. MAS had then posted four straight years of losses and was saddled with over RM9 billion in debts. 

How could we justify paying 121 per cent premium? Power-holders are trustees of the national wealth. How could they dish out so much of our wealth to save a crony? Isn’t this an abuse of one’s position and authority? There was no accountability and transparency. This is also one form of corruption. ”It is money”, as we commented way back in May 1978, “that could have been used to create jobs for the unemployed, build homes for the slum dwellers and construct clinics for the poor”.

One can quote numerous cases and examples of corruption. But they all reflect a sad situation and question our seriousness in combating corruption.

Act now, don't just talk

To drive home the fact and convince ordinary Malaysians that we are serious in trying to eradicate corruption, the following actions must be taken in all sincerity:
  • Place the ACA under the scrutiny of Parliament - not under the PM. The present practice has not enhanced the image of the ACA nor has it been effective in curbing corruption.
  • Get all Members of Parliament and of State Assemblies to publicly declare their assets to the people. This will ensure that elected candidates are sincerely committed to upholding integrity and honesty.
  • Make it compulsory to declare all political contributions so that the government will not be beholden to big-time contributors when it comes to awarding contracts, licences and permits.
  • Set up an Ombudsman with full investigative powers so that corruption can be investigated and weeded out.
  • Appoint a Royal Commission of Inquiry to restore respect and confidence in the Judiciary and purge it of all the negative elements plaguing it.
  • Appoint a Royal Commission of Inquiry to clear Dr Mahathir of the allegation that he ordered the former ACA head to close his investigation against the ex-Economic Planning Unit head, Ali Abul Hassan Sulaiman.
We hope that these recommendations – repeated on numerous occasions in the past - will receive the Prime Minister’s urgent attention. We need to be convinced that corruption and social greed are being fought with sincerity. We hope that he will remain focussed, committed and determined in his effort in eradicating this evil that is draining our wealth and demoralising us.  

Singing songs and shouting slogans will not make a difference. The wearing of badges will not bring about change. If it could, we would have got rid of the ISA a long time ago. I have been wearing this “Abolish ISA” badge for years and yet the ISA is still around!  

Corruption must be fought with sincerity, honesty and tenacity. There must be absolute integrity. There must be transparency and accountability.

P Ramakrishnan delivered this speech when Aliran was awarded Transparency International’s National Integrity medal in Kuala Lumpur in December 2005.

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