Off The Cuff - The curse of corruption

SO much has been done in the fight against corruption but are we any nearer to achieving the goals of containing the scourge that we set out to do at least some 40 years ago?

If you ask 10 people the above question, their answer would be a resounding "No".

First, we had the Anti-Corruption Agency, then the National Bureau of Investigation before it was again named the Anti-Corruption Agency and finally in 2009, came the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission.

An entity under whatever name or guise can only do so much and it takes much more to break the backbone of corruption, which is dubbed the world's second oldest profession.

During my exclusive interview with Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong two weeks ago, I asked him how Singapore managed to remain one of the least corrupt countries in the world?

"We try very hard. It is not easy, but it is necessary to continue making the effort. It helps that we started on the right footing. Right from the beginning when the PAP (People's Action Party) took over in 1959, this was a prime consideration. We wanted to run a clean system, a clean civil service and a clean political leadership.

"We have been quite unsparing in enforcing that. Whoever transgresses, whether it is senior or not, whether it is a civil servant or a minister, we have to investigate and consequences have to follow. This is a very important part of it," the prime minister replied.

He said that another very important part of it is the attitude of the public who have grown to expect this of the government.

"The public attitude is very important. Because without that, if the public accepts that it is a normal way to do business, that if you are in power then these are perks of the office, that will be a very different situation even if we have the laws," he said.

And most interestingly he said: "We have tried our best to make our pay fair and realistic for civil servants as well as for the ministers, so that we minimise the temptation for somebody to say that I cannot live on my salary. I have got to look after my family. In Singapore, there is no reason to say that. You come in, you cannot expect to get rich in the government, but you should not become poor because you had to do public service."

Lee's father's – the late Lee Kuan Yew – anti-corruption obsession was credited as the singlemost powerful weapon in the island nation's war against graft to the extent that the buzzword in Singapore then was that the fear of the elder Lee was more than the fear for the law.

Some 10 years ago, I asked Lee Kuan Yew at a dinner he hosted for some Malaysian journalists in Kuala Lumpur what was it that he would have done differently if he could turn back the clock in his long years as PM, 31 years to be exact?

He spoke of how he hauled up a cabinet minister on being told that the man had allegedly accepted a bribe in connection with a housing project, warning him that he would have to face the full brunt of the law.

Shortly after, the minister committed suicide before he could be charged in court.

"On hindsight, I could have done it differently, perhaps to be less harsh on him. But it was something I felt that I had to do then," I remember him telling us.

At home, the Sultan of Perak, Sultan Nazrin Muizzuddin Shah, has been consistently warning of the evils of corruption, right from the time when he was the Crown Prince.

And he speaks clearly of the dire consequences that even a child can understand him.

Just four days ago, during Prophet Muhammad's birthday celebration in Tanjung Malim, he expressed deep concern over the corruption and criminal breach of trust committed flagrantly by highly-educated and high-ranking individuals.

The ruler was candid and spot on.

"Allah has stressed that humans should not take for themselves the property of others through methods disallowed by Islamic law.

"It is equally wrong for one to hire false witnesses or give bribes to judges with the intention of influencing a decision to enrich oneself.

"Property acquired through such methods is tantamount to cruelty and oppression of others," he said while warning that history has shown that many a government and civilisation has collapsed because of acts of embezzlement, corruption, greed and abuse of power.

Social activist Dr Chandra Muzaffar told me he was so moved by Sultan Nazrin's powerful anti-corruption speech, which he described as a significant statement that should jolt the conscience of every citizen to do his or her bit against corruption.

To me, the Malaysian public needs to have the same abhorrence for corruption just like in Singapore.

Chandra said: "The sultan is undoubtedly right and spot on. Throughout history, corruption has caused the demise of civilisations. Civilisation will just decline, disintegrate and disappear."

He cited the anti-corruption works of Ibnu Khaldun, regarded as the greatest thinker ever produced in the Arab world.

Arnold Toynbee, one of the greatest British historians, acknowledged Ibnu Khaldun's works as the greatest ever produced by a human mind.

Our minds certainly are fixated on the corruption case where two months ago the MACC in Sabah arrested two civil servants and seized RM53 million in cold cash hidden in their homes.

The pair had between them amassed almost RM200 million via well-structured schemes involving federal-funded water projects. They also had another RM30 million stashed in foreign bank accounts.

The MACC officers who raided their homes had expected to find only a few million ringgit in cash but instead stumbled upon what could well be the biggest seizure of ill-gotten cash in recent history.

This is something that every citizen should be ashamed of.

New MACC Chief Commissioner Datuk Zulkifli Ahmad, previously from the Attorney-General's Chambers, certainly has his work cut out.

He has shown more bite with many arrests of corrupt individuals over the four months he has been in office.

And he has issued a stern warning to public officials to own up as sooner or later the long arm of the law will catch up.

We wish him all the best.

Comments: letters@thesundaily.com