The bleeding goes on and on

ONE of the most keenly awaited announcements by the public is the annual Auditor-General's Report that highlights how taxpayers' money is managed, but more often than not mismanaged by the various units that make up the government machinery.

Over the years, there had been startling revelations of how billions of government funds has gone down the drain due to gross dereliction of duty, oversight, disregard for standard operating procedures and incompetence on the part of civil servants tasked with the onerous responsibility of managing the nation's assets.

For some 11 years that he was the auditor-general until over a year ago, Tan Sri Ambrin Buang regaled us with his reports presented in Parliament that showed that despite his and his staff's efforts to minimise the loss of hard earned billions, it goes on and on.

In many areas of the public service that critics often describe as bloated and unwieldy, the check and balance mechanisms and capability are still deemed "much to be desired".

It's no different with the first series of the 2017 AG's Report made public this week by Ambrin's successor, Tan Sri Madinah Mohamad.

By any standard, RM61.55 million is a lot of money that could have been spent on a more noble cause such as housing the homeless.

But instead it went into building two marinas, apparently to attract leisure boats for tourists, at Kuala Kedah and Mentagor island in Perak, both of which have long been completed but have become white elephants.

The Kuala Kedah marina started operation since work was completed in 2003 while the Perak one was built 10 years ago but hold your breath, not even one boat has docked!

What does this all mean? It means there was zero planning before these projects were implemented. There was no necessity for them at all but nevertheless the Treasury was ever so generous.

At the same time, my mind is focused on the many dilapidated rural school buildings especially in Sabah and Sarawak that could have been rebuilt with this money but neglected due to misplaced priorities at the Treasury at that time.

Two other public marinas, one in Muar, Johor, and the Tanjong City Marina in Penang have stopped operations due to serious damage to their pontoons. Another one at Tanjong Gemok also in Pahang has been handed over to the Maritime Enforcement Agency.

Under the 8th and 9th Malaysia Plans, 11 marinas were built and the latest AG's Report says poor planning is to blame for such gross wastage of public funds.

Ambrin was recently appointed to lead a special investigation committee on procurement, governance and finance by the new Pakatan Harapan federal government.

Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad in announcing his appointment said the panel would start by investigating procurements made by the Defence Ministry, the one ministry where it's an open secret that most of the "sweet" procurements or tenders craved by so many high-profile and well-connected bidders came from.

The Defence Ministry has reportedly been involved in questionable mega deals, including the €1.2 billion Scorpene submarines from France and the privatisation of some 400,000ha of land to three persons without an open tender.

Another is the disappearance of two fighter jet spare engines from the Sungai Besi airbase in 2008.
Defence Minister Mohamad Sabu revealed recently that many of our air force fighter jets are not airworthy.

And this is just marinas and planes we are are talking about and there are as usual many other things that Madinah mentioned in her report, including an operating theatre at the Alor Gajah Hospital in Malacca that could not be used because it was not built to specifications, among other things.

Imagine an operating theatre is supposed to be a place where lives are saved and here we have a situation where it cannot be used despite a lot of money spent on it.

Ambrin, whom I regard as a most dynamic AG and media savvy at that, was looking forward to a well-deserved retirement from public service. But now he has his plate full in his new role which is an enhanced version of what he did previously; this time the issue of governance over the multi-billion dollar procurement "industry".

We will be hearing a lot more from him in the coming weeks.

He told me that the report on the marina fiasco was a follow-up to a similar audit done some years ago.

"It's fallacious to build marinas to attract tourists when the ecosystem is not ready. It's better to have good marinas where tourists flock in numbers like Langkawi, Kota Kinabalu or Penang where there are many tourist attractions," he said.

Asked about his new role, Ambrin said: "We have just started. We will look into some of the suspicious cases."

I had the privilege of being invited by Chief Secretary to the Government Tan Sri Dr Ali Hamsa to speak to top civil servants at their retreat held in Bukit Tinggi, Pahang, two years and it was this same issue of leakages of government funds that I candidly spoke about.

The then hottest controversy was the discovery of RM52 million in cash at the house of a senior civil servant in Sabah tasked with implementing rural water supply projects. Alongside him, graft busters also arrested over a dozen district engineers alleged to be part of yet another corruption scandal.

There was silence among the secretaries-general of ministries and directors-general when I told the session that with this kind of scandal, the image of the civil service has gone down so badly that it would be tough to recover.

How on earth could such a huge amount of cash be stashed in an officer's house? It implies that the Treasury which released the money wasn't even aware or bothered to care if the money had been spent appropriately?

Secretaries-general are also the chief financial controllers of their ministries and it is their statutory duty – as well as being among the most highly paid civil servants – to prevent the haemorrhaging of public money in such blatant manner.

They should stop the bleeding before it gets to the point where the auditor-general has to year in and year out issue what in football jargon is known as the yellow card.

Madinah in her report says only seven out of 25 ministries have achieved excellent marks in financial management.

For the rest, I say, come on. Do what you are supposed to do and stop the bleeding.