BY GURDIAL SINGH NIJAR
(Deputy President, HAKAM)
THE jail term imposed on Khir Toyo for corruption committed while he held the people’s trust as the mentri besar of Selangor shows the level to which our political leaders have descended to. This is not the first such case. Another Selangor MB was also jailed for corruption. A Johor MB was exposed by the Supreme Court of usurping land meant for army veterans for himself and his cronies. The 1980s cooperative scandals resulted in jail terms of political stalwarts. The PKFZ scandal implicated high-ranking politicians.
Although prosecutions are far and in between – a tip of the iceberg as not all cases are “discovered” or revealed – it reflects the unabated decay of the body politic.
Corruption is more than a matter of jailing wrongdoers. It diverts or denies services intended for the people, it empties state coffers. Ultimately it bankrupts nations.
Invariably, the corrupt disguise the gratification they receive. These ingenious contrivances are criminal nonetheless, as the MACC Act makes clear. A corrupt “gratification” can be in the form of money, donation, gift, loan, fee, reward, valuable security, property or interest in property, financial benefit, or any other similar advantage.
The 2014 Transparency International’s Corruption Index placed Malaysia at 50. Our immediate neighbour which shares the same demographic make-up as us (indeed many of their public officials are Malaysians or ex-Malaysians) ranked 7th.
How come this yawning gap?
Is it because their “Rules of Prudence” stress upholding the fundamentals: integrity, honesty and incorruptibility – with an enforcement machinery to match?
But then our PM has also issued similar clarion calls to “intensify efforts in fighting corruption and abuse of power” together with a “comprehensive integrity plan that cross borders to prove the government’s seriousness in addressing governance, integrity and corruption”.
Yet there seems to be a terrible trust deficit. Is this a mere matter of misplaced perception? An independent and transparent enquiry can speedily dispel this notion.
But the signs are dismal – exacerbated by recent episodes and the dismissal of officials. An AG retired abruptly; ministers dismissed summarily; parliamentary investigations stalled; other investigative bodies dismantled; investigation officers arrested.
The rakyat bears the brunt of corruption by public servants: a devalued currency, downturn in the economy, flight of funds, substandard services and conditions of life.
You see, public service officials are truly servants of the people. We the people, give them our utmost trust and confidence to manage and protect the nation’s property and money. This in law is known as a “fiduciary”. And a fiduciary is accountable for any dereliction of this duty. Our courts recognise this.
The Federal Court said as much – that government stands in a fiduciary relationship to those it serves (Bato Bagi v Sarawak Government). It must protect our interests. Else it betrays our trust. It can be hauled up in court for this breach of fiduciary duty.
It is ultimately our institutions which are entrusted with the obligation to maintain the integrity of our public officials: the police, the attorney-general in his role as a public prosecutor, the courts, the auditor-general and to some extent parliamentarians. But these institutions are under siege.
The former AG was unceremoniously bundled out of his office. The police hardly inspire public confidence – what with incessant arrests and selective and arbitrary exercise of power. Courts deny standing to citizens in public interest cases on archaic procedural grounds. Judicial review of governmental overreach receives much the same short shrift. The report of a Commission of Inquiry of misconduct implicating the judiciary lies buried in some deep recess. And the promotion of judges with an exemplary record of unquestionable integrity is aborted by the executive.
Even parliamentarians often disappoint. Note that the Security Offences (Special Measures) Act which the opposition condemns – was passed by a vote of 81-68; and the Prevention of Terrorism Act by 79-60. If all the 86 opposition MPs were present, these two acts could have been defeated! Hence the public outcries against well-salaried MPs fiddling while the proverbial Rome burns!
Ultimately, it is all about integrity. Larry Hagman, the famed villain JR of the Dallas TV series, sums it succinctly: “Once you get rid of integrity the rest is a piece of cake.”
There is an emerging consensus that the solution, and the challenge, lies in restoring integrity as the uncompromising overarching value of our society – along with the entire architecture of institutions that helps foster it.
Recently, the Perak sultan warned leaders and administrators against the undermining of the integrity and independence of our institutions.
Else it will not be easy to contain the wrath of a frustrated citizenry – as seen in the recent episodes both within and outside this country. For who does not yearn to replace the cold and bitterness of winter with the warmth and splendour of spring?
Gurdial is professor at the Law Faculty, University of Malaya, and HAKAM Deputy President.