National Anti-Corruption Plan commendable but …

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Ramon Navaratnam looks at the challenges the nation faces in implementing the plan to achieve its goal within five years.

The National Anti-Corruption Plan (2019-2023) (NACP) is highly commendable and will be welcomed by all honest Malaysians. The government and all those who formulated this comprehensive NACP deserve our appreciation.

But the proof of the pudding is in the eating. There is much concern, if not doubt, as to whether we can achieve the goal of a corruption-free Malaysia in just 5 years by 2023?

The latest Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index (CPI) showed also in our battle against corruption last year. This period includes eight months of Pakatan Harapan government rule since May 2018.

Our ranking improved from 62nd to 61st position out of 180 countries, from 2017 to 2018. At the same time, our score remained stuck at 47 points out of 100, in 2017 and 2018.

This slight progress is nothing much to shout about and happened despite all the vigorous efforts taken to charge many of those suspected of huge corruption in the 1MDB scandal.

What does this low score in the index mean? It indicates that Malaysia’s Corruption Perception Index will improve only when the results of all our efforts to fight corruption and bring to book the corrupt leaders bear fruit. That is to say, all those guilty of corruption, especially in high places should be made to pay the price of swindling the rakyat. Then our index score will do better.

What are the challenges to become a corrupt-free nation in just five years?

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As Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad has rightly stated many times, corruption has developed into a kind of culture in Malaysia over the years.

Some reasons for this bad corruption culture, which I have observed as former president of Transparency Malaysia, are as follows:

1. Developing from a feudal society in the past, we often carried on with the tradition of rewarding those who provided us with good services. For instance the helpful civil servant was given chickens, muruku or ang pows for doing his job well, especially during festivals. Of course today the chickens have been replaced by Big Money under the concept of “cash is king”!

2. Many perceive that corruption is acceptable as it contributes to improving the distribution of income. The view held by many is “You give me and I`ll give you”. So apa salah? (So, what is wrong?)

Some believe that we need to share our wealth, as in “Let’s share-lah! You untung dan saya mesti untung juga!”

3. However grand corruption occurs mainly in the arena of money politics. Here is where the NACP has to come out boldly with proposals to control money politics and to set limits on political funding. The NACP will set these limits in two years. But I am sure it can be done sooner than that. After all, precedents for fixing limits on political funding can be found all over the world. We could just set some criteria for essential campaign costs that don’t include bribes for votes. It is not difficult to take into account the cost of campaign banners, pamphlets and candidates’ transport and travelling costs.

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4. The public and the civil services were much more multi-racial in the past and corruption before 1970s was far less. There is a tendency to have fewer checks and balances when the public service is more mono-ethnic as one may feel reluctant to report one’s own kind, so to speak. This is natural. So the NACP should push for a more multi-racial public service to encourage competition to be clean of corruption.

5. Most importantly, the top leaders in the government, the secretary-generals and heads of department must set the best examples for integrity and corruption-free conduct. Otherwise, as a constable once told me, “Why can’t you give me only RM50 for not writing a traffic summon, when the big shots get away with RM50m and more?” He was logical but not morally right. When I insisted on my summon, he let me off with a mild warning!

What more could the NACP do?

The NACP has to work closely with the government to raise efficiency and reduce red tape in government. Members of public offer bribes mostly due to delays in obtaining approvals for licences, permits, contracts awards and land alienation for property development or cultivation, etc.

Thus if government administrative efficiency is improved further, the opportunities to demand and pay bribes will be reduced considerably

The NACP should also seek to reduce the size of the government. The large public service of about 1.6 million civil servants is due to the wide range of government services managed by the civil service. Why not find ways of downsizing government and allowing the private sector to undertake some of these government services?

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All religious leaders could do more to preach more fervently against corruption. If the fear of committing corruption is ingrained in all places of worship more regularly and resolutely, it will do a lot of good in our fight against corruption – as it will be regarded a despicable sin!

4. Why not the NACP adopt the principle of presumption of guilt until proven innocent of corruption. This principle is practised in some countries to much advantage. Perhaps a study could be undertaken on its merits and practicality. For example, someone in a sensitive official position with a low income but who has 10 houses could be presumed to be guilty of corruption and he will have to prove his innocence. Perhaps he could show that he inherited his wealth, but if his parents are also poor, he would have to explain his newfound wealth.

5. To ensure we do not just talk and don’t take much action against corruption, the NACP has to ensure that there are trusted monitoring systems of the progress made in implementing the NACP’s sound 22 strategies and 115 initiatives to combat corruption.

Thus, it may be useful for the NACP to provide the public with half-yearly reports to show the progress made to achieve the its goals and targets by 2023.

Conclusion

The NACP is encouraging and purposeful. Public expectations have been raised substantially by its aim to achieve a corrupt-free society in just five years.

Some of the proposals I have made above could serve to attain its worthy goals.

But as our prime minister has firmly stated, we are all to work together to achieve these NACP goals; otherwise we ourselves will face criticism and guilt for failing to fulfil our own responsibilities to ensure effective implementation of the NACP.

Let that be our New Year resolution. Happy New Year – with less corruption!

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