My Say: Of squeaky rats and politicians

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IN times of difficulty or when facing an economic crisis, the government and the ruling party often don’t take criticism in their stride. Those who proffer contrarian views, even if they are objective, are often snidely referred to as saboteurs by party apparatchiks, in this case, economic saboteurs who are out to ruin the country’s economy.

Such arguments do not make sense, as though this country only belongs to them and those not supportive of the government have no love or concern for Malaysia at all. Take the criticism of 1MDB — a wholly owned Ministry of Finance strategic investment outfit. Cabinet ministers, no less, have alleged that most critics are politically motivated. Attacks on 1MDB, they said, will only affect the country’s image.

One minister described the critics as mentally deranged, while another argued that 1MDB is the goose that lays the golden egg, so why kill it? I guess this goose needed to borrow over RM42 billion and let itself be foolishly over-leveraged before it can lay a single golden egg.  

Many of the criticisms came not just from Opposition members but also ruling party politicians, with former prime minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad and ex-finance minister Tun Daim Zainuddin taking the lead. Then there are those like veteran mainstream media editor-in-chief turned blogger A Kadir Jasin, financial newspapers and news portals.

Their sincerity in raising questions does not matter to party apparatchiks, who claim these critics are just out to nail the government of the day and don’t mean well. Some of the apparatchiks even declared the critics as enemies of the state.

But, if not for the pressure, and the information revealed and shared by the critics about potential wrongdoings, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak and the Cabinet would not have instructed the Auditor General to independently verify 1MDB’s accounts. Critics had called on the AG to do this months ago but were told by him then that he needed a mandate from the government to do so.

Deputy Prime Minister Tan Sri Muhyiddin Yassin has gone a step further. He wants the AG to audit, in a “transparent, independent and comprehensive manner”, 1MDB’s accounts since its inception in 2009 — facts and figures which are not captured in the 2013 annual accounts audited by Deloitte, which incidentally, is the third audit firm to handle 1MDB’s accounts. The other two were Ernst Young and KPMG.

Only in this manner will the government-owned entity be able to clear its name. Muhyiddin also doesn’t want efforts to handle 1MDB’s debts to involve a government bailout. He adds that the Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) can start its own probe and not wait for the AG’s report to be completed.
But already, the Cabinet has given its nod to a RM950 million “standby credit” which, according to 1MDB, is based on commercial terms, but nevertheless is still considered a bailout by some.

All those with credible information, including whistle-blowers and the media, should be welcomed by the AG and PAC. The government, on the other hand, should provide the necessary assistance and funding for the AG to get the best forensic team to do the job.

And if there are wrongdoings and those entrusted with responsibility, including the board members, failed in their duties by allowing the entity to be mired in massive debts — which the government now admits are unsustainable without assistance despite critics’ warning of this many months ago — they must be held accountable.

But for now, I will leave it to the AG and his team to do their job.

Talking of economic saboteurs, there is one which, if not controlled, can pose a perennial problem to the nation — corruption. I term corruption the mother of all economic saboteurs, notably those committed by people in power, be it at the federal or state government level.

Behind them will be those who work in the civil service and the national institutions that are supposed to safeguard the nation’s coffers, serve as checks and balances and strengthen the administration. One can blame the giver but let us not get into the chicken-and-egg debate as there will be no givers if there are no takers — it’s as simple as that.

Endemic corruption is dangerous because it can bring a nation to its knees and cause governments to fall. It has bankrupted nations and big companies. When this happens, billions in taxpayers’ money is needed to correct the wrongs. It might take a long time for companies and nations to recover.

Corruption also allows companies that are less competent to get projects. We have seen this in projects given to companies with no proven track record. Examples of abandoned projects and major defects due to sub-standard construction are plenty. Corruption breeds complacency, inefficiency and wastage. That is why it is considered a scourge by many nations.

We must not allow corruption to grow into a kleptocracy, which is defined broadly as a government of a state in which those in power exploit national resources and become like thieves instead. This has happened in some countries in Africa, South America, Eastern Europe and Asia.

The word kleptocracy was introduced to me by the late professor and vice-chancellor of Universiti Malaya, Syed Hussein Alatas, who was a columnist in this forum section. The academician who was also a politician — not many know that Syed Hussein was a founding member and the first president of Gerakan — was an implacable foe of corruption.  As a scholar, he wrote many books and papers on the topic.

The professor was in his element when talking about corruption. In my many long chats with him, he would use the example of the rat to emphasise a point.
He once likened politicians who are corrupt and greedy to rats that stumble on a ship — or a nation for that matter — full of grain. While steering the ship to its port of call, the greedy rats choose to eat the grain. Even after becoming fat, their greed knows no bounds and they continue to feed on the cargo until not a single grain is left.
When they become hungry again, they start to nibble at the wooden planks, eventually causing a big hole in the hull. Water gushes in and the ship sinks, killing all the rats before it has even reached its destination. If this ship were a metaphorical nation, it would have led to bankruptcy or a failed state.

But there are other times when rats are not bad animals in Syed Hussein’s analogy. For example, in his article in The Edge titled “The squeak of a rat” (May 22, 2006).

He quoted what John Ruskin (1819-1900), the English art critic, writer and reformer, wrote in 1897 in a letter for distribution among workers on true legislation. Ruskin warned that it was not enough to merely have members of parliament to voice their grievances. They must understand the problem to represent the people well.

If MPs do not fully understand the problems of those they are supposed to represent — if I may add, like those faced by 1MDB — their voices in Parliament are “not worth the squeak of a rat”, as Ruskin put it.

The late professor emphasised this too: “I would like to add that the squeak of a rat at least represents the true feeling behind the squeak. But the squeak of a politician can be deceptive. When a rat squeaks, it expresses its true intention. It is not political double talk nor a camouflage of its motive. The squeak of a rat has a higher integrity value than the squeak of a corrupt, decadent, manipulating politician, utilising all his available talents for deception.”

Is this the case for Malaysia?
Azam Aris is senior managing editor at The Edge

This article first appeared in The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on March 16-22, 2015.