It is an irony that in spite of all the attempts to curb corruption — through integrity pacts and pledges, the strengthening of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) and the establishment of special anti-corruption courts — the scourge remains as serious as ever. The irony assumes greater significance when we recall that Malaysia was arguably the first country in the Global South to establish a separate body to fight corruption and formulate a law for that purpose.
In the recent exposure about human trafficking along our northern borders which revealed mass graves and clandestine camps, corrupt officials in enforcement agencies in Malaysia and other countries may have been implicated. Even in some of the shenanigans associated with the 1 MDB controversy, acts of venality may be involved.
Why does corruption and the general lack of integrity continue to challenge our well-being as a nation? It has been suggested that corruption occurs at the lower echelons of our society partly because of the meagre incomes of a substantial portion of our population. When both husband and wife have to do extra jobs in the midst of escalating cost of living, they may be sometimes tempted to resort to illegal practices to make ends meet.
An even more pervasive cause of corruption in consumer oriented societies like ours, is the feeling of material deprivation that a lot of people suffer from when they compare themselves to the affluence of a minority which in turn persuades some to dip their hand into the till in order to satisfy their desire to purchase what the rich and famous own. Contemporary advertising sometimes exacerbates the situation.
At the root of the phenomenon of relative deprivation is the lavish lifestyle of an opulent elite. In fact, it is partly because of their addiction to this lifestyle that some members of the elite resort to monumental acts of corruption. They abuse their power to accumulate wealth through foul means. They set a bad example for the rest of society. Elite corruption, as many studies have shown, is most difficult to combat because of the power at the disposal of the elite — unless there is a major political upheaval.
When elite corruption is deeply entrenched, combating corruption at other levels of society also becomes more complex. This is because a corrupt enforcement officer may sometimes be protected by a network that goes right up to the apex of his administrative structure. The one at the apex may be linked, in turn, to someone else along the corridors of power. This is one of the reasons why we often fail to implement or enforce effectively measures meant to eliminate corruption. The lack of effective enforcement is one of the many factors responsible for the persistence of corruption at various levels.
How do we overcome this persistent malaise? One, we must ensure that firm action is taken against those entrusted with task of enforcement who violate the rules. For this to happen, there has to be an independent body outside the various enforcement agencies which will have the power to investigate and prosecute such violators. This is what the Independent Police Complaints and Misconduct Commission (IPCMC) proposed by a Royal Commission in 2005 was supposed to do. This is the time to revive the proposal except that the Commission should cover all enforcement agencies and not just the Police. The urgency of establishing such an all-embracing Commission is underscored by the dastardly human trafficking tragedy at our border which allegedly involved different government agencies.
Investigating and taking action against public officials who commit wrongdoings is not new. It had existed in ancient Chinese and Korean administrative systems. It has been argued that a similar concept was practiced by the Ottoman Rulers through the Diwan-al-Mazalim which harkens back to the time of the second Caliph in Muslim history, Umar Ibn-Khattab.
Two, apart from acting against erring public officials, there has to be a holistic review of the national wage structure with the aim of increasing substantially the remuneration of those in the lower and middle strata in both the private and public sectors. Of course wages should be improved in tandem with productivity which in turn will require the acquisition and upgrading of skills. Special attention should also be given to the entire ecosystem of the disadvantaged which will embrace creches and kindergartens; schools and clinics; public transport amenities and cooperative stores. It will not be possible to reduce stark inequalities and achieve an equitable distribution of wealth and opportunities in society unless some attempt is made to check and trim the obscene emoluments and vulgar perks paid to the top brass in private corporations and public enterprises.
Three, if remunerations have to be reviewed in our endeavor to fight corruption, we should also focus upon the elites and their use of power. It has been suggested a number of times before that all Federal and State legislators and their immediate families should declare their assets and liabilities in a public register. The closest kin of serving Ministers, Deputy Ministers and State Executive Councilors should be prohibited by law from bidding for Federal and State government contracts and projects. Public officials who live beyond their means should be investigated and, if need be, prosecuted by the MACC. For the MACC to play this role, the Commission and its Chief Commissioner should be truly independent and provided iron-clad constitutional guarantees.
Most ruling elites will not willingly circumscribe their powers through legislation. They will have to be persuaded and pressured through peaceful channels. This has to be done if we want to live under an honest government which is just and accountable.
This has been the human being’s ideal for eons. It is recorded in Confucius’ teachings for instance that he once came across a poor woman and her children living in an area infested with tigers. Asked why she did not take her children and move elsewhere, she replied the tigers were not as dangerous as life under the corrupt ruler of the neighboring state.