January 24, 2015
The Missing Ingredient in National Reform–The Political Will to Fight Corruption
by R.B. Bhattacharjee
Turbulent times like the current era, when our nation is facing multiple crises on the economic, political and even constitutional fronts, prompt some soul-searching questions.
One query that arises when reforms are proposed to address a particular issue, be it corruption, the quality of education, religious intolerance or similar weighty matters, is: Why do we feel that despite the wealth of well-intentioned solutions that are proposed, there is a strong sense of uncertainty about their outcomes?
Are there some missing ingredients that are essential for change to be successful? This is important to ponder not only because massive amounts of resources are committed towards the achievement of their proposed goals, but also because the failure of these efforts carry huge costs for society in terms of lost opportunities and poor life outcomes for the victims.
At this point, it is useful to note that this dilemma is equally pertinent in relation to global conundrums such as the world economic (dis)order, climate change and the perpetual geopolitical crisis.
It seems incredible that entire institutions and even multi-stakeholder organisations can be engaged in extensive programmes that can run for decades without paying attention to this fundamental deficiency in the results department.
The paradox becomes clear when an issue like corruption is examined. The givens include Malaysia’s troubling ranking in corruption surveys, which has been trending downwards for at least more than a decade. In the Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index, for example, Malaysia dropped 14 places from 36th spot among some 170 countries in 2001 to 50th position in 2014.
It is pertinent to note that the decline continued even after extensive efforts to reform the situation, including the establishment of the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) in 2009.
To see it from a different angle, The Global Competitiveness Report 2014-15 by the World Economic Forum found corruption to be the most problematic factor by far for doing business in Malaysia .Some 17% of respondents cited this point out of 16 parameters in its survey. This issue jumps out of the page when compared to the next highest factor, access to financing, which drew 9.7% of responses, while the remaining factors taper off in importance.
The paradox of Malaysia’s growing corruption problem in the face of conspicuous efforts by the government to address the scourge prompted the Malaysian Bar, in association with several advocacy groups, to submit a memorandum for the reform of the MACC to the commission in July 2015.
The timely memorandum identifies four substantive areas of institutional reforms that are pivotal to the successful prosecution of corrupt persons. These areas are:
- the creation of a constitutional mandate for the anti-corruption commission that places it beyond the control of the executive enlargement of the scope of the MACC Act 2009 amendments to related legislation to support whistleblowing, etc, and the separation of powers between the Attorney-General and Public Prosecutor.
- This brings us back to the question of the missing ingredients that may prevent these much-needed reforms from being successfully adopted. The first of these elements is the obvious cooperation that is needed from the executive to limit its own powers. In turn, such a development can follow only when the number of voters who are responsive to issues of good governance is substantial enough to prevent unethical politicians from taking office or to remove those who are abusing their powers.
- That, in turn, is a factor of the health of a society’s democratic institutions and the public expectations about their rights, liberties and responsibilities in a civil society.
- Beyond these institutional factors, however, there is another dimension of a society’s democratic culture that may be overlooked because of its subtle quality. This is the element of the individual’s self-identification with an ethical value system that breathes life into a code of conduct or norms of behaviour.
While it is common to draw these values from religious and institutional codes of ethics, there is a tendency to confuse the formal rules of these codes with the spirit of ethical behaviour that is at the core of such rules.
These are the values that manifest as decency, public-spiritedness, compassion, fellow-feeling, humility, thoughtfulness, honesty, generosity and many such beautiful sentiments that adorn civilised human beings.They are meaningless when codified, but the lack of this spirit of ethical conduct in an institution, organisation or society will surely rob that entity of meaningful purpose.
So while the battle against corruption serves as a useful example to demonstrate the vital importance of a spirit of ethical behaviour in sustaining a purposeful existence, the same principle is equally valid when applied to the many challenges we face as a nation, and as a global community.
To build a new future for our people, we may need to learn once more how to infuse this universal spirit of ethical conduct into the child who sits on our knee.And to teach this lesson well, the best precept may well be our own example. –
* R.B. Bhattacharjee is Associate Editor at The Edge Malaysia.