Q: Why did Malaysia slip down the transparency index?
A: One trouble area concerns the public procurement policy, contracts for supply of equipment to the Government, the award of projects, etc. Domestic and international investors are yet to be convinced that we have an open and fair tender system.
The Government has said in the past that the open tender system was too clumsy, would take too long and would entail a lot of red tape.
This statement was transmitted all around the globe and I think it caused a lot of damage. It created the impression that Malaysia was not practising an open tender system and therefore there was no level playing field in business transactions with the Government.
Q: Prime Minister Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi has said that all projects, except for a select few, will be awarded through open tender. Has this statement helped change the perception?
A: That was a good statement, in fact the sort of message we all are hoping would be made. I am not surprised it was made by the PM himself because he believes in transparency and accountability. Certain tenders naturally would have to be opened to certain parties, i.e as part of the economic policy to ensure the Malays get a fair slice of the cake.
But when it comes to contracts where we are inviting foreign bids, we create a problem when we award contracts through closed- door negotiations or on a first-come-first-served basis. This is something that, if not addressed quickly, will bring about a very negative perception about Malaysia. I am hopeful given Pak Lah’s own record and credentials, and very strong political will, we will see a gradual reversal of this perception. Q: Is it possible that the PM’s initiative against corruption will only bear fruit in a few years?
A: Success cannot be achieved overnight. Corruption is a social disease which has been with us for a very, very long time, particularly since 1967 when the country started to go into industrialisation. This phase pro-vided more opportunities.
I think five years down the road, provided there is the same commitment we see today in the Government and leadership, I cannot see why we cannot be among the top five. With all the institutions strengthened and measures now in place reinforced, and we are able to put more substance into the rhetoric, we will achieve some results.
In other words, we cannot relax our vigilance; fighting corruption requires 100 per cent commitment and total vigilance.
Q: What are your views on the drop in Malaysia’s position in the corruption index?
A: Out of 10, we have been given a score of five this year and 5.2 last year. But a drop of 0.2 should not be a matter of concern because it is insignificant. Also, the index is not intended to be a year-on-year comparison but based on a three-year rolling average. So this latest score is based on surveys done in 2002, 2003 and 2004. I don’t think Pak Lah in particular should feel disheartened by this development. It is a temporary setback, merely a technical correction, but having said that, we must all work extremely hard to try and reduce corruption in our society.
Q: Specifically, what can we do to reduce corruption at all levels?
A: Clearly, there is a great deal of political will. We also have a PM whose words against corruption are not rhetorical. This man means business and we have seen the evidence e.g. the setting up of the Royal Commission on the Police Force.
Q: A prevalent notion is that people are drawn into corruption because their salaries are low. Do you think a hefty rise in salaries would help?
A: It would help to some extent but I don’t believe giving people higher salaries is the solution. We have to look at the problem in a holistic way. Low salary is part of the problem but how do you explain people with high salaries being involved in corruption?
It’s greed, opportunities and power which they abuse. But I think what’s important is for us to look at our institutions — judiciary, police, Customs, immigration, etc.
I am not suggesting these are corrupt organisations but because of the power they exercise, they can become prone to corruption. I believe prevention is better than cure. We study where things can go wrong and make sure the loopholes are plugged.
Q: How about religion and values? What role do they play in countering graft and unhealthy practices?
A: Religion and cultural values all play a part in modifying a person’s behaviour. At the end of the day, we will have won the fight when individuals ask themselves "Is what I am doing right or wrong?"
Q: In the index, countries like Norway and New Zealand always come out tops. Do you think their way of doing things, their administration, their practices should be used as a model?
A: It is not possible to replicate their systems exactly because different countries have different situations, but we can have a look at why Singapore, Norway and Finland are successful.
They have strong ethical values about honesty, self-work and a highly developed sense of right and wrong.
And obviously the countries at the top of the table are those with a very strong and intact institution of government which has not been compromised by corruption.
Q: Has the prosecution of Tan Sri Eric Chia and Tan Sri Kasitah Gaddam helped in the anti-corruption campaign?
A: They have helped to focus the anti-corruption efforts of the Government and Anti-Corruption Agency. But the perception still is that we are not serious about curbing corruption.
For example, there are people living beyond their means, known to be involved in unethical practices, but when nothing is done about this, a lot of good work that has been done comes undone.
We are being observed, Malaysia is a very important economy. Fifteen surveys out of 18 are used to determine our score. It goes to show there is great deal of international interest in our country. Other countries are subject to fewer surveys, some as few as three. But we have always been subjected to a higher number of surveys which mean we are considered an important player.
Q: Has the Anti-Corruption Agency done a good job?
A: To be fair to them, they have been as professional as they can within the constraints of their operations. They need more resources in terms of equipment and people.
Corruption is not a simple crime and may involve many transactions, cross-border, money-laundering and large-scale fraud. With today’s easy access to banking and financial deals, we do need some clever people in the ACA because the crooks are getting cleverer.
My organisation has been pushing for an independent anti-corruption commission. The PM needs the support of the nation, the Pak Lah magic alone will not do very much unless everyone is behind him in this fight against corruption, so the ACA will have to be independent and should be answerable to an all-party parliamentary committee.
Q: Some NGOs, including Transparency, are often portrayed as anti-government. Do you care to comment on this view?
A: It is not true at all. In the first place, although we are part of this international movement, every chapter is completely independent, we have our own agenda, strategies and so on. We are not political and do not take sides.
I am a volunteer, I started TI in 1995 and I don’t get a sen. Where do we get our money from? In the first few years, I operated from a room in my house. Then we managed to get some money from the Swiss, not the Swiss Government but from some capacity-building fund belonging to an organisation which supported our work here. We carried out a number of projects funded by the Finland, German and Dutch embassies; not the United States, the United Kingdom, France, China, Australia.
We have been very careful where we get our money from. Before, the private sector would not come close to us fearing they might lose their government contracts. But I suppose through our good work, this has changed. Petronas has made available RM750,000 for a three-year funding of our work.
Q: The people should be educated on the evil of corruption early. Should a subject on graft be introduced in school or university?
A: This should be done. We have to catch them young. We don’t have to talk about corruption but about civics and being a good citizen. The war is lost the moment corruption becomes a culture.
A study found that a majority of our students will be quite happy to be part of a corrupt system that benefits them. They have lost the idealism that is often associated with young people.
Q: Some Rulers decided to suspend and revoke titles of those involved in wrongdoings, including corruption. Will this help to restore public confidence?
A: Yes. But what should be done is to do away with giving datukships to all. We should revert to the Malay culture, then the datukships are related to their duties like Datuk Bendahara, Laksamana, Syahbandar, in short the functional datuk.
If I have done something for the country or society, just award me with a medal but not title. When there are too many Datuks, people begin to wonder, "What have they done to be awarded datukships?" So the perception is that people pay to get the titles.
It is giving the Rulers a bad name.
Q: Finally, are you happy with what has been done in terms of curbing corruption here?
A: I feel our country can do better. I am proud of my country and being a Malaysian. Whatever I do, I place the country’s interest above my agenda. Whenever I speak on this subject in international fora, I try to promote Malaysia’s will to fight corruption, to promote Malaysia’s governance in public and private sectors. I do this because I feel that over time, provided we can raise the level of awareness of the negative impact of corruption, people will come to realise that they do not have to live with corruption and they do not have to subject themselves to it.