Tuesday, 3 July 2012

A war against corruption!

Much like transformation itself, rooting out corruption is a marathon rather than sprint

WHEN we talk about corruption, we are not talking about a fight against corruption or a battle against corruption. We are talking about a war against corruption fought on a broad front with many battles, some lost and some won, over a period of years before eventual victory.

No country has done it overnight and for many it is an ongoing war that must be waged relentlessly. Hong Kong took 10 years. It is endemic in countries around the world and it is in the most advanced and structured of societies that the war against corruption has been most telling.

But here in Malaysia, many of us expect that it can be crushed and eradicated in a short period of time and all it takes is political will. Yes, political will is necessary but it is not the only condition. Many things need to be put in place and real results will take time.

This is one aspect of transformation where we have to constantly battle against unrealistic expectations – people want results yesterday but we can’t give it to them immediately. Not today, not tomorrow, not even in the next month, because the war against corruption is one of the most difficult and, beyond time, it takes a considerable amount of effort, by many, many parties.

This is further complicated by a problem of measurement. The prevalence of corruption is not easily measurable. When we take action against corruption, the number of people brought to book will be higher but this does not necessarily mean that corruption has decreased.

For better or worse, we have to rely on perceptions of how corrupt we are, both from our own public and how foreigners see us. Sometimes, there are situations which skew the final results against us as we shall see shortly.

There is absolutely no doubt that we need to step up the war against corruption especially since the two most common indicators, Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index (CPI) and the Global Corruption Barometer survey, show no significant change over the last two years – 2010 and 2011. But still we have made some progress when we take a closer look at the figures.

In 2010, Malaysia’s CPI score was 4.4 as the average score of nine surveys. Then, in 2011, Malaysia’s CPI score was 4.3 as the average score of 12 surveys. This means that three additional surveys were added. Our ranking slid to 4.3 from 4.4. (No country obtained 10 points – the highest. New Zealand topped with 9.5 while Singapore was fifth at 9.2.)

The movement in the CPI score (minus 0.1) was due to these additional three surveys, which had very low scores, thus bringing the average down. If these three surveys were not added, Malaysia’s CPI score would have moved up tremendously. One of the new surveys included was the Transparency International Bribe Payer’s Index.

This survey showed that Malaysians have a high tendency to pay bribes when they work or operate in other countries. I am certain that without that particular survey, our CPI would have increased. Because it is perceived that Malaysians working overseas bribe, it affects the CPI of the country itself.

Additionally, our ranking was 60 out of 183 countries in 2011 against 56 out of 178 countries in 2010. In Asean, we were placed at the third spot after Singapore and Brunei.

In terms of the barometer survey in 2011 conducted by Transparency International in 2011, 49% of the Malaysian public felt that the Malaysian Government’s fight against corruption is effective or extremely effective, a marginal improvement from 48% in 2010. This, however, is a vast improvement from 2009 when only 29% Malaysians thought that the Government’s effort on corruption was effective.

Overall, the two surveys show that we have made some progress in terms of the perception of corruption in the country and the number of people who have confidence that something is being done.

People like to say we must go for the big fish first. But it is not as simple as that. The process of gathering evidence is not easy and the very presence of corruption can make this process more difficult and even impossible in practice.

But what we need to do first is to put building blocks in place, a more bottom up approach which seeks to put in place a framework for good practices and a mechanism to report and root-out any corruption that takes place. It may look like we are starting small, but we are not. We need to put the right foundations in place.

Here are some examples of building blocks we have put in place:

Whistle blower provisions: Implementation guidelines were issued in March last year. Agencies are already processing complaints of improper conduct under the Whistleblower Protection Act 2010. To-date, there are 28 cases;

Integrity pact: The Mass Rapid Transit (MRT) project was to be the first large-scale project to implement the full Integrity Pact including monitoring and oversight elements. An oversight body was established involving the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC). An independent external monitoring system headed by the Auditor-General, with external party involvement, was formed to ensure adherence to the terms of the Integrity Pact. Full implementation of the Integrity Pact is only carried out on big projects with a high monetary value, so as to justify the cost of implementation;

Faster prosecution: To hasten prosecution, 14 special corruption courts were set up since February last year and more than 250 cases have been processed;

Naming and shaming website: The MACC has set up a website to list those who have been successfully prosecuted for corruption offences. This offers a ready database for interested parties and acts as a further deterrence to corruption. There are 710 listings to date (2010: 284; 2011: 96; and 2012: 13);

Open, competitive tenders: Wherever possible we have open competitive tenders with set procedures for government procurement. For increased transparency, there is the MyProcurement Portal which lists 5,157 government contracts online in 2011; and

Reduction of red tape in business licence applications: We are reducing the number of licences required from 780 to 375 and saving RM730mil in compliance costs. Such reduction of red tape reduces opportunities for corruption.

These are just a sampling of the measures being implemented. Over time we aim to build a wall against corruption by putting in place measures to stop its occurrence in the first place. This is as important as prosecution. Indications are some of the measures taken have directly helped government revenue. For instance, following MACC’s investigations into the Malaysian Customs Department, customs tax collection rose to a high of RM30.4bil last year. The highest previously recorded was RM28.6bil in 2008. This year, Customs expects to collect RM32bil.

In addition, the changes and reforms that we have put in place are also slowly showing results with foreign investors. According to a survey by the American Chamber of Commerce (AmCham) in Singapore, perception of corruption in the region, a long-standing issue, has greatly improved, with only 35% of respondents reporting dissatisfaction in 2011 compared with a high of 63% in 2010.

Consulting firm A.T. Kearney has also recognised Malaysia as among the top 10 countries in the Foreign Direct Investment Confidence Index for 2012.

We are taking serious efforts to fight corruption and we know the payback will be large. We are starting with the building blocks and then we will do more. Much like transformation, it is a marathon rather than a sprint. We need time.

You can do your own part by simply refusing to be part of any corrupt practices and, of course, reporting it when you come across it. That will help tremendously.

Datuk Seri Idris Jala is CEO of Pemandu, the Performance Management and Delivery Unit. He also Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department. Reasonable comments related to this column are welcome.

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