There is a monster in the swamp


It was not so long ago when voters, hoping for reforms and change, gave Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi an unprecedented mandate. Among other things, Abdullah had vowed to tackle corruption.

Since then, the reality has not quite matched the rhetoric. The hopes of many have been dashed.

We seem to be stuck in a swamp of corruption and we just cannot haul ourselves out of it. The more we try and cling to an overhanging branch, the more we seem to be sinking deeper and deeper in the muck, right up to our neck in the bog.

We know the problem – endemic corruption – and yet we seem to be powerless to eradicate it. Worse, we do not seem to care much about it.

My friend Rustam Sani, one of Malaysia’s leading public intellectuals, has asked a pertinent question: “Having realised it in our guts that corruption is rampant in our society – and according to our luminaries in parliament and corporations it is causing harm to our social fabric – how is it that we still do not have a sense of indignation or outrage against it?

“The existence of a widespread public indignation or outrage, I have always thought, would have been the first step towards the eradication of corruption in our society.”

Rustam also observed that some local and state authorities seem more concerned about “moral policing” and snoop squads; on the other hand, they appear tolerant and lax when it comes to corruption. Perhaps the problem is that many people in our society are actually prospering in a system that is sustained by corruption so much so it doesn’t really bother them.

This can only mean one thing, concludes Rustam: “What we have in Malaysia is institutionalised corruption. And that is truly a chilling thought.”

This is an excerpt from a piece I wrote for The Herald.

Yes, there is a monster in the swamp of corruption: institutionalised corruption.

How is it institutionalised? For one thing, there is a close nexus between business and politics in Malaysia that has severely compromised the system. Too many vested interests are benefiting from corruption. No wonder the authorities are unable to drain this swamp and, moreover, they lack the political will to do so.

Everyone knows that the Anti-Corruption Agency is not really independent in the first place – for, after all, it reports to the Prime Minister and not to Parliament. Meanwhile, the media are fettered and controlled. Oppressive laws such as the Official Secrets Act and the fear of repercussions, which could put careers into cold storage, also serve to deter potential whistle blowers.

But then again, even if the ACA was independent, it would still be severely ill-equipped to deal with the issue of rampant and systemic corruption in Malaysia. For one thing, the ACA has traditionally focused on straightforward bribery cases, which is only part of the problem or even just a symptom of the larger disease. The ACA is not really up to the task of disentangling the tentacles of business and political interests. For beneath the surface lurk cronyism and greed, which has fed the monster over the years.

This monster first sprung to life during the tenure of former Prime Minister Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who presented us with Malaysia Inc. From then on, there was a blurring in the demarcating line between political and business concerns giving rise to situations of conflict of interests. One such example was the case of the then economic adviser to the government Tun Daim Zainuddin, who had his own vast business interests, including in the banking sector.

Seen in a broader context, the free rein given to corporate-led globalisation has also contributed towards a society that is engrossed in seeking material gain, not always legitimately. Corporate media propaganda bombards us with the image of the “good (materialistic) life”.

The result: there is a stampede in the pursuit of wealth. Many are tempted to take shortcuts to acquire such wealth whether it is through wheeling and dealing on the stock exchange, cronyism or schemes to get-rich-quick without hard, honest work.

Listen to the words of St Paul in his First Letter to Timothy:

“We brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it; but as long as we have food and clothing, let us be content with that.

“People who long to be rich are a prey to temptation; they get trapped into all sorts of foolish and dangerous ambitions which eventually plunge them into ruin and destruction.

“‘The love of money is the root of all evils’ and there are some who, pursuing it, have wandered away from the faith, and so given their souls any number of fatal wounds.” (1 Timothy 6:7-10)

As we survey our national landscape, those fatal, gaping wounds of corruption and greed are there for everyone to see.



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