Thursday, March 22, 2012

The heart of the matter

Going by what is making the rounds in the media, on and off line, Malaysians have every right to be questioning the sincerity of the Federal Government’s stated commitment to transparent and accountable governance. I think we have every justification to wonder whether the Government even truly understands what corporate governance means.

Malaysians have over the last two decades or been given enough grist for the proverbial mill. Every so often, information would present itself in the public domain for us to doubt that government really knew best, or that it consistently acted in the public interest. Accusations of cronyism and self-interest plagued the Mahathir administration, as they did the administration of Abdullah Badawi. Granted, there were more exposes where the latter was concerned, though this was primarily due to the burgeoning role of social media in the Malaysian and Tun Abdullah being less iron-fisted.

Suffice it to say that over the years, righty or wrongly, Malaysians have become more convinced that the Government tends to act only in its own interests. And where the perception used to be that the Government acted with regard to primarily its political interests, it is now widely believed that the member of Government equally act in their own financial interests.

This is a state of mind that the Government’s continued rhetoric on eradicating corruption does little to address; rhetoric that the Government must surely recognise has minimal, if at all, impact. This is largely due to the fact that Malaysians are given precious little to form a belief that the Government does actually walk the talk.

Consider the recent recommendation by the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) Advisory Board that Ministers and their families declare their assets to the MACC. One would have thought that this was a step that needed no recommendation, or the recommendation having been made by a specialist Advisory Board tasked with making recommendations of that nature, it would warrant little or no debate from the Government. Yet, a Federal Minister opposed the suggestion on the ground that it would endanger Ministers. From what exactly was not made clear though perhaps, if viewed as a Freudian slip, it conveyed the Minister’s fear of transparency.

It is not very surprising that despite the obvious political fiasco the National Feedlot Corporation (NFC) affair has precipitated, the Government still acts as if there was really nothing wrong with the public funds disbursed to NFC being utilised for the personal purposes of NFC directors and shareholders. This was in spite of some Ministers believing, a viewpoint that I share, that the public funds had been entrusted to NFC for a specific purpose. One would have thought the Government would have directed the Attorney General to take all necessary steps to secure the funds and ensure their return to the Treasury. It goes without saying that the Attorney General has an arsenal of legal provisions at his disposal for that purpose and the resources to commence recovery proceedings worldwide if necessary. The Government has instead incomprehensibly left it to the Attorney General to commence prosecution on charges that go merely to compliance with the Companies Act.

It may be that there is more than the obvious to the NFC affair, perhaps even some mysterious self-evidently exculpating dimension. Whatever the case, it does the Government little credit for it to act as if the saga was just an event in the ordinary course of government. And the truth, as alarming as it is, may be that the Government does really view it that way.

That may explain why the Prime Minister does not appear to feel that it is highly disconcerting for his official offices to have been used for the organisation of his daughter’s engagement. The event, as happy as it is for the families involved, is just that: a family affair. Leaving aside the crucial question of whether the Prime Minister’s Office paid for the event, it was highly inappropriate for the Prime Minister to have utilised government resources for a personal matter. His having done so speaks of a blurring of the lines between the personal and the official in the highest executive office of the nation with all its attendant ramifications and implications.

The fact that the use of the Prime Minister’s Office for personal purposes was not limited to the engagement celebration, going by what has been revealed concerning the Prime Minister’s birthday celebrations, suggests that this sort of thing happens regularly. This may even be the case where the other members of cabinet are concerned.  In these circumstances, Malaysians have every justification to ask whether the Prime Minister and the members of his cabinet address matters of state with the same ambiguity.

There is enough material in the public domain for us to reasonably form the view that they do. Consider the consistent demands by the Opposition and civil society for more accountability and transparency in government spending and the unwillingness of Government to respond meaningfully. The raging controversy over the NFC has as yet not resulted in public disclosure of how it is that NFC came to be granted the soft loan. Other commitments on the part of the Government that have made the news recently are similarly opaque.

These, and other instances, are fueling grave concern over the state of the country’s finances. Unbridled public spending over contracts that have not been made subject to open tenders, some of which involve what could be described as non-arms-length parties, have been shown around the world to be recipes of disaster. But then, we know all that and the question in our hearts is really how far are we from the brink.

Going by what we have learned about the extravagant lifestyles of our leaders we might have reason to believe that all is well. Surely they would not be spending money as if it was going out of fashion, personally and professionally, if there was cause for concern. Or would they. 

The fact is we really do not know, and that is at the heart of the matter. A democratically elected government is one that is accountable to the electorate. Voters did not elect a majority to form a government that would run the nation’s affairs covertly or by stealth. Any such government would simply not be tenable.


(This article was first published in The Edge, 17.03.2012)