Being Human: Nip the bud of graft when no one is looking

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This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on January 23 - 29, 2017.


The high-profile arrests of a string of senior government officials and top executives of government-linked companies in recent months has undoubtedly created a major blot on the image of the civil service.

Such exposés of corruption, involving hundreds of millions of ringgit in some cases, naturally trigger a gamut of questions about how pervasive the scourge has become in Malaysian society. They certainly provide much food for thought about the direction in which the country is heading.

Various statements by the Malaysian Anti-

Corruption Commission chief, his deputy and government leaders about civil servants, particularly high-ranking ones, who lead lavish lifestyles and associate with contractors and suppliers on overseas trips and golfing holidays, only confirm the perception that ethical conduct may be at risk in not a few situations.

Almost as a reflex action, there have been numerous calls for various remedial actions, such as stringent vetting of high-ranking officers to check incidences of abuse of power.

However, these fix-it proposals often fail to satisfy the basic requirements of effective problem-solving, which require a deep understanding of root causes in order to focus on the essential issues that must be addressed for lasting solutions to be adopted.

This is even more important in tackling corruption, which encompasses an entire ecology of behaviours that spring from personal motivations to societal norms to institutional influences and much more.

An inquiry into the issue of corruption would be meaningless without acknowledging its role in undermining the health of the political system, and this has clearly become a point of deep concern for Malaysians who are mindful of the future prospects of the country.

Today, it has become evident that the system of checks and balances that is needed to prevent the abuse of political power has become so weakened that calls for a complete break with the past, through reform initiatives like a proposed truth and reconciliation commission, are being seriously discussed.

The concern extends to scandals like the 1MDB debacle, although the more worrying issue is that the controversies that have engulfed that state investment fund are by no means the first or last involving colossal amounts of public funds.

In the ongoing churn around 1MDB, the paralysis of accountability within the country concerning that incredible case could not be more contrasting than against the series of legal, criminal and administrative actions on persons and institutions that had been involved in the fund’s dealings outside our borders.

The many statements by government leaders, most recently by International Trade and Industry Minister Datuk Seri Mustapa Mohamed, that Malaysia must move on from the saga of the troubled state fund, do not go far enough to restore confidence in the country’s determination to get to the root of its corruption problem.

The inescapable fact is that we cannot put that episode behind us until the key actors involved are brought to book. Until then, unfortunately, the effectiveness of anti-graft measures will continue to be undermined by the status of the 1MDB story.

In the meantime, efforts to instil a culture of integrity among employees of public and private institutions have become common as unending rounds of financial misadventures have come to light.

Amid all these reactions, it is relevant to ask whether attempts to remedy the ethical deficit like the taking of public oaths to uphold integrity, the declaration of assets and the use of polygraph tests, as mooted recently, are ultimately effective.

Clearly, corruption requires a comprehensive strategy that covers punitive measures, stringent checks, well-functioning governance systems, sound ethical practices and a societal commitment to ethical living, among other things.

In these measures, it is common to see an overemphasis on rule-based solutions rather than attempts to nurture ethical values, and this may be among the reasons why the desired transformation in society has not taken place.

As always, pervasive transformational change boils down to individual choices at a personal level. It is self-evident that people who are highly motivated to live by an ethical code of conduct, regardless of the methods that lead to the internalisation of those values, are less likely to break that code than those who do not put a premium on them.

That motivation can be created by negative reinforcements, such as the social disgrace that accompanies a conviction for corrupt practices or a fear of retribution in the hereafter. It may also be engendered by positive conditioning, such as the implanting of the idea that one should avoid abusing public funds because it could deprive the needy of essential social services.

At the higher end of the scale of positive motivation lies the ethical idea that one should avoid abusing one’s office for selfish gain because all actions have at least three dimensions — they affect the subject, object and the environment in which that action is taken.

From the street-level corruption of bribery among enforcement officers all the way up to abuse of power in high office, the realisation that not just are the bribe-giver and bribe-taker falling into error, but are also contributing to the decay of their society, can become a powerful motivational impulse if those involved tune in to their moral compass.

Applied to our own conduct in society, we have all the motivation we potentially need in this ethical principle to create a nation that is not only free of corruption, but one that is disciplined, productive, just and caring.

If we can remember this idea whenever we are tempted to bend the rules, choose the path of least resistance, or cut corners when we think no one is looking, there is no doubt that we could soon become a society that is quite graft-free, and perhaps even exemplary.

R B Bhattacharjee is associate editor at The Edge Malaysia