Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Culture of Corruption

"No stone will be left unturned in finding out the real cause of death and, if there is any foul play, action will definitely be taken." So says the prime minister to Teoh Beng Hock's family.

Of course the above statement should come as a reassurance not just to Beng Hock’s family members but to all Malaysians. And the operative term here is “should”. That’s the part that troubles me and is something that I find rather difficult to get over. Ideally, we should have confidence in Najib’s reassurance; we should take solace in the fact that the truth will be revealed; we should have faith that if there has been any criminal wrong-doing which led to or contributed to Beng Hock’s death, that justice would be served; we should have no hesitation about such an eventuality.

Just as we should be able to trust the fact that our government agencies designed to serve and protect the public are in fact themselves not infested with corruption. We should be confident that those who head these agencies are not themselves compromised and simply obedient political instruments of their political masters. We should be able to have faith that our corrupted political culture has not just tainted – but in fact is sharply reflected and entrenched in the working of government agencies such as the MACC and the police force.

Let me suggest the following: Any arm of the government – you name it – is only as good as the political culture practiced in that society. A society whose political culture is riddled with corruption, nepotism and cronyism will find that is various government institutions are but a mirror image of that reality.

And only when there is a genuine, serious political commitment in the leadership to weed out such a culture - rather than to even just tolerate it, let alone contribute to it – will there be a realistic chance for cleansing such agencies. Decades ago, Singapore was in a similar boat as us with respect to having rampant corruption. But something definitive happened – the leadership there made a serious commitment to stamp-out the culture of corruption. A systematic and sustained effort was made to pull this off. Today, when one thinks of countries in Asia where corruption is rampant, Singapore is not one that typically comes to mind.

Ask yourself this: Can we say the same about Malaysia? I think we both know the answer to that question. (Indeed, Transparency International ranks Singapore – along with Denmark, New Zealand, and Sweden) as the top five countries in the world with the lowest level of corruption. Singapore did not get there by just plain talk about good governance, producing slogans year after year plastered all around the media and our billboards. Its leadership did something about it – and not just talked about good governance and all that other nice stuff that amounted to empty promises.

There is nothing magical about implementing changes and reform. Even incompetent leadership, with even a minimal desire and determination to do so, can produce some, albeit limited, results. And we’ve had decades of Umno dominance that has essentially given us more of the same.

As long as there is no political will to change the culture of corruption, it will shape how our government works.

And so long as those who govern benefit from – and at the very least are not harmed by this culture of corruption – there is no incentive for them to change it. Well, unless of course if they are committed to a higher calling to create a better society.

Yes, we should expect that “no stone be left unturned” in uncovering the truth about Teoh’s death, and about Gunasegaran’s and Kugan’s deaths, and about the deaths of numerous others under mysterious circumstances while under the custody of the authorities.

This is what we should expect from our elected representatives.

Maybe then we stand a chance to get leaders with a political will to change our culture of corruption.

G. Krishnan