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M. Bakri Musa

Seeing Malaysia My Way

My Photo
Location: Morgan Hill, California, United States

Malaysian-born Bakri Musa writes frequently on issues affecting his native land. His essays have appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Asiaweek, International Herald Tribune, Education Quarterly, SIngapore's Straits Times, and The New Straits Times. His commentary has aired on National Public Radio's Marketplace. His regular column Seeing It My Way appears in Malaysiakini. Bakri is also a regular contributor to th eSun (Malaysia). He has previously written "The Malay Dilemma Revisited: Race Dynamics in Modern Malaysia" as well as "Malaysia in the Era of Globalization," "An Education System Worthy of Malaysia," "Seeing Malaysia My Way," and "With Love, From Malaysia." Bakri's day job (and frequently night time too!) is as a surgeon in private practice in Silicon Valley, California. He and his wife Karen live on a ranch in Morgan Hill. This website is updated twice a week on Sundays and Wednesdays at 5 PM California time.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Towards A Competitive Malaysia #89

Chapter 13 Deteriorating Institutions

Eradicating Corruption

Corruption can never be completely eradicated, as greed and dishonesty are basic human traits. However, unless there is a strong commitment not to tolerate it, corruption will by default becomes acceptable, which is the same thing as encouraging it.

In combating corruption, it is crucial to send a strong signal from the very top. The remarkable success of Singapore in tackling corruption was precisely this. Its leaders took bold and highly visible steps early on; with that, the gravity of the message sunk through very quickly.

While closing down bad institutions would quickly send out a strong and effective message, it would penalize the few workers who are honest and diligent. This could be remedied by redeploying them, assuming you know who they are. As effective and radical as that method is, there is the added risk that powerful constituents and beneficiaries of those agencies would protest, as demonstrated by the Indonesian experience. If their supporters are strong or big enough, they could cripple or bring down the government, and you could end up with a worse situation.

Current efforts at reigning in abuses in the police force, so well documented in the Royal Commission Report, are stymied by the Force’s many supporters. UMNO Youth strenuously opposed the Commission’s recommendation for an independent complaints bureau.

The trick would be to pick the institutions that are so blatantly corrupt such that the public is totally disgusted with, or one that does not have a powerful constituency. The Road Department, Customs Agency, and the Land Office would be appropriate candidates. Shut them down and contract their services out. The public would applaud the ensuing crispness and efficiency in service. In addition to such decisive and dramatic actions (“shock and awe!”) at the macro level aimed at whole institutions, we need even stronger actions at the micro or personnel level by going after the “big fish.”

There are two possible avenues of actions: through executive decision and through the criminal justice system. The Prime Minister could take executive action by outright firing, demanding the resignation, or not appointing (or reappointing) ministers and other top appointees who have the slightest hint of impropriety. The threshold is necessarily low and arbitrary; whatever the Prime Minister decides. He sets the standards. Innocent till proven guilty is fine in a criminal court, but not in positions demanding high public trust and integrity.

The other is through aggressive criminal prosecution. Here the burden of proof is rightly high. There should not be malicious or politically motivated prosecutions, that would be worse. The temptations would be there in order to demonstrate one’s resolve.

Prosecutorial zeal and misconduct can come in many guises, most often in pursuit of fame, political ambition, or outright corruption itself. However, if a prosecutor were to leverage his successful litigation career into something political, that is his right.

Prosecutors should not be hamstrung by political considerations; this danger exists where the Anti Corruption Agency is not independent. Nor should the ACA wait for an ironclad case before proceeding. Sometimes just disclosing the evidence in open court even if that does not result in conviction would serve a wider useful public purpose.

The corrupt would not willingly part with their ill-gotten gains by hiring the best legal talent. That is their right, and should be zealously protected. There is no place for kangaroo courts; substituting one corrupt system for another is not the answer. Nor do I believe that corruption is a capital offense.

Abdullah had two rare opportunities early in his tenure to demonstrate his resolve in fighting corruption, and he squandered both. The first involved Kasitah Gaddam, a low-level cabinet minister charged with corruption; his trial is still pending. The second was Isa Samad, a senior figure in both UMNO and the cabinet who was found guilty of “money politics” by his party peers. Abdullah should have publicly demanded their resignations; instead he let them dangle in the breeze. They eventually resigned voluntarily, more in response to widespread public disgust. Abdullah missed a rare and splendid opportunity to send an important message. Worse, it appeared that he condoned such gross lapses of corrupt behaviors.

Next: Discouraging Corruption


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