1MDB scandal: A leadership deficit

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Graphic: vonyaglobal.com

The leadership deficit is about this: not wanting to speak up when you know that a great wrong is being done, writes K Haridas.

Former Bank Negara governor Zeti Akhtar Aziz believes that Malaysia is facing a leadership deficit in both the public and private sectors.

This could be a symptom of the entitlement policies that have been in existence for decades. When we replace meritocracy with race and other criteria for the selection of individuals to head Institutions, then what we encourage is nepotism and we develop cronies.

We have leaders, but the butter is so good on the bread that they are not ready to stand up and be counted. There is too much to lose in terms of perks and benefits, titles and status that silence seems to be the better option. Off the record they will say what they really feel, but the promotion of the status quo is the favoured option for them.

Intelligent well educated men and women who are in leadership positions seem to sacrifice their convictions and values. Where are the Islamic values in the administration? It is not a question of mere beliefs and expressions at forums and conferences. When the time comes to stand up, people in responsible positions fail, and this is the perception many have of Zeti herself.

Alternatively, people have received money or benefits from the establishment; so they do not have the spine to take a stand. Truth will always remain the truth, but many who should know better are ready to sacrifice the good name and reputation of the nation rather than take a stand for what is right.

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In some ways, is this not a reflection of how the entire establishment stands compromised?

Consider that government-linked investment companies control 42 per cent of the share market in terms of market capitalisation, and these companies have spawned 68,000 companies.

What an opportunity for civil servants to be on the boards of such enterprises! Currently, over 700 civil servants sit on such boards.

Many sit on numerous boards. Take for instance, the secretary general of the Ministry of Finance. In addition to his salary as a civil servant, he also receives director’s fees and attendance allowances from the numerous companies on whose board he sits. Why should he take a stand?

The same can be said of former chief secretaries, retired judges and other top civil servants.
Will such people take a stand and sacrifice for the interest of the nation?

“We want leaders who can make a difference and create a better future,” stresses Zeti.

But where are the role models whom we can emulate? It is easy to rationalise that the environment is different, that technology demands greater visibility and scrutiny and miss the wood for the trees.

Ultimately, it is about the individuals involved. If they do not stand up for their beliefs and convictions, and if they have not clarified their non-negotiable values, then the status quo is the best option.

Leaders must have the spine and conviction to speak out for what is right. If the values of honesty and integrity, transparency and accountability are not part of their make up and deep convictions, then what is there to life? At best, they will reflect the mentality of the sheep. Despite all our national integrity plans and a minister responsible for this task, we do not have people who are cultured to provide leadership based on convictions.

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There is a big elephant in the room, and no one from the administration is ready to pay the price for speaking out and taking a stand – for to do so would be unpopular to the ruling authorities; a price will have to be paid in the interest of the nation.

The private sector is equally culpable as they fear reprisals should they speak out or be seen to be aligned to opposition politicians.

There are nevertheless individuals from the Opposition who are clear and specific. Rafizi Ramli secured RM1.5m when he raised funds to lodge RM300,000 in the courts while appealing his case. Others in the opposition and NGOs have also suffered with travel bans and other limitations.

Do Islamic values within the administration not prompt individuals to stand up to power?
We have Parti Islam SeMalaysia (Pas), and we would have expected them, as the self-appointed moral guardians of society, to take a principled stand on the 1MDB issue. They are clear on the weaknesses of the ‘ummah’ and have a compliance-based hudud approach.
The very fact that they are somewhat silent on the 1MDB issue compromises their religiosity.

This is yet an indication of the volatile nature when politics selectively mixes with religion and promotes the race agenda.

Critical questions

Ethics is not space science that is difficult to understand.

A simple ethics check raises the question, “Is the issue at hand legal or illegal?”

This not only refers to civil and legal issues but also to a code of ethics and abuse of power.

So much has been done in relation to 1MDB to circumvent this issue – from the early retirement of an attorney general, the changes to members in the public accounts committee of Parliament, to the placing of critical documents under the Official Secrets Act.

All these actions incriminate those involved. They are not interested in transparency and accountability.

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“Is it balanced and is there going to be a big winner or a big loser?” – would be the second question.

Those involved and senior civil servants would realise that the amounts involved are far beyond the range of what is appropriate or balanced, and the loss has serious consequences for the nation as a whole.

The third question relates to those involved: “How does this make me feel about myself?”

Stress, sleeplessness, fear and anxiety, having to sack key personnel, having cronies tell lies, and cover-ups are an indication of self-inflicted guilt.

The first question – the legal issues – raises aspects of compliance and accountability; the second question about being balanced touches on fairness and rationality; while the last question speaks volumes about personal integrity and morality.

There is yet another question: “How do you feel when all this is splashed in the media nationally and globally?”

Individuals have gone to jail for participating in this mammoth money laundering in Thailand, Singapore and Switzerland, and the US Department of Justice in the United States has been scathing in their revelations.

Yet, thick skins prevail while the nation’s reputation plummets. With all our slogans and Visions, the Rukunegara, Islam Hadhari when the test comes, we fail because our leaders do not have the moral and ethical fibre to stand up for the nation and be real patriots.

As a nation we have secured freedom as a people. But those in power and position have lost their freedom and become victims of unbridled greed, selfishness and meaningless religiosity.

The leadership deficit is about this: not wanting to speak up when you know that a great wrong is being done. Perhaps Zeti can still be a role model and show us what it takes. If she does, she can yet become a towering Malaysian.

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K Haridas

K Haridas, an Aliran executive committee member, is the current chair of the Business Ethics Institute of Malaysia and of the Malaysian chapter of Initiatives of Change International.

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