Being Human: What will it take to find our moral compass?

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R-B-Bhattacharjee_Being-Human-WeeklyTHE situation is as absurd as it can get.

Last Wednesday, the Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement that the "Cabinet expressed confidence that no wrongdoing has been committed within 1MDB” after a two-hour briefing by the Finance Ministry-owned investment company 1Malaysia Development Bhd (1MDB) and its auditor Deloitte concerning recent developments involving the fund.

That statement has zero value, to put it mildly, because it merely confirms that the internal checks and balances function that the Cabinet should play in overseeing government affairs is conspicuously absent at this point in time.

Without going into the details of the 1MDB fiasco, it is evident that the troubles at the investment fund have become the subject of international financial and media attention. Therefore, any official scrutiny of the debt-laden government company must meet the minimum standards of accountability and transparency for it to carry weight, and especially to avoid any imputations that problems that should concern the public may be whitewashed by such an enquiry.

Specifically, the investigation must be independent and free of possible conflict of interests in order that the credibility of the probe would not be diminished by questions about vested interests, bias and such flaws.

In a word, the Cabinet should disqualify itself from clearing 1MDB’s affairs simply because its members are beholden to the prime minister for their tenure in his administration, and also because, as the finance minister, he is concurrently the chairman of the 1MDB advisory committee. There is a potential conflict of interests.

So, what the PMO statement has “achieved” is to put the credibility of the Cabinet — as a meaningful forum for government leaders to represent the people’s interests in steering the country’s administration — at stake.

It is important to recognise that the failure of the Cabinet to exercise its public duty by recommending, for example, that an independent enquiry be launched into the full operations of 1MDB stems from a paralysis of ethical thinking.

It is equally vital to acknowledge that by all accounts, virtually the entire national environment is suffering because of our collective failure as a society, in our personal capacities, and also in the public and private positions of responsibility that many of us may hold, to do what is right in the face of violations of justice, human dignity and fair play that are taking place in our midst. Today, it is evident that at one level, in almost all the gravest problems facing the country, we have failed to find our moral bearings as a society.

In the case of the Cabinet’s decision on 1MDB, it allowed the members of Datuk Seri Najib Razak’s administration to turn a blind eye to the host of irregularities that have been reported concerning the fund, since long, long before the investigative news site Sarawak Report dumped on the unsuspecting public its hoard of amazing communications among the principal actors in the fund’s dealings.

The questions that rise to the surface about 1MDB are really quite basic: Who is responsible for ensuring that the fund’s operations are in line with its stated objectives? Why was the fund allowed to become so highly leveraged that it has suffered a cash flow crisis? Has the fund become a liability to the country’s economy? It is possible to carry on in this vein for quite a while.

What should happen next in a venture like 1MDB that utilises public funds is that a circuit breaker must be activated to prevent possible collateral damage to not just the economy but also governing institutions that may prove to be ineffective against such runaway vehicles that receive official protection. Moreover, when the costs of such publicly funded misadventures are tallied, often the price includes cuts made to social safety net programmes to make up for gaping holes in the exchequer.

What Malaysia needs today to awaken to the possibilities of a new dawn in the country’s democratic development is firstly a capacity for critical self-examination. We sorely need this quality to discover the failings in our own responses to the challenges and shortcomings of the Malaysian development story.

This no doubt requires much courage because we must be able to bear the critical public scrutiny of our fellow citizens when we lay bare our own weaknesses and failures in our search for a better tomorrow.

Such courage comes from a deep conviction about the importance of building our lives and our society on the foundations of truthfulness, justice, equality and similar noble values that form the core of all universal value systems.

 Once we are convinced about these values, it tends to become transformed into a desire to act in ways that allow such attributes to be manifested in our everyday lives.

Given this foundation, there is little room for doubt about what stand to take on issues that come to our attention at any given time — whether in a Cabinet meeting or when confronted with the paradoxes of life in our multicultural society.

To give life to the Malaysian Dream, therefore, we first need to find our moral compass.

R B Bhattacharjee is associate editor at The Edge

This article first appeared in Forum, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on March 9 - 15, 2015.