The phoney war against corruption

Looking back over the year, one thing that must surely stand out is the high level of corruption in our nation. It seems that every government department with power to approve, license or enforce the law is deeply compromised. And it’s not just a few errant lower-ranking officers who are corrupt; corruption has seeped through the entire fabric of the bureaucracy, even to the highest levels.

Rotting institutions and institutionalised corruption is one of the terrible legacies that decades of Umno rule has bequeathed to the nation. The key question now is whether the Pakatan Harapan (PH) government is up to the task of taming this monster that is gnawing at the very soul of our nation.

Media reports record the long litany of scandal after scandal involving almost every government department and agency. Even the judiciary and police have not been left untouched. The most serious cases, however, involve the departments of immigration, customs, road transport and city hall.

In his 2018 report released earlier this month, the auditor-general (A-G) highlighted the sorry state of affairs at the Immigration Department. He noted, for example, that there were no records of exit involving more than 95% of Chinese and Indian nationals who visited the country between 2016 and 2018.

It is a staggering statistic that should have immediately set off alarm bells in Putrajaya. Taken together with the huge number of illegal Chinese nationals operating gambling syndicates here, it suggests that the whole system of managing, monitoring and regulating the entry and exit of foreigner visitors has completely broken down despite the millions spent upgrading it. Is this due to incompetence, corruption or both?

The director-general (DG) of immigration dismissed the A-G’s findings as nothing more than a technical error. According to his calculations, the actual number of Chinese tourists who have not left the country is 18,341, as if that somehow vindicates his department.

With dozens of officers arrested, sacked or suspended for selling passports, falsifying documents and aiding and abetting the unlawful entry of foreigners, there’s just no escaping the fact that the Immigration Department has a huge corruption problem; yet it boasts about being a world-class agency by 2020.

Our Customs Department is not doing any better.

In July, a report indicated that Malaysia has become the largest consumer of contraband cigarettes in the world. Indeed, 60% of all cigarettes sold in the country are contraband. The illicit cigarette trade cost the country almost RM4.8 billion in excise duties last year.

The sheer size and scale of the problem suggests that the Customs Department is simply not up to the task of dealing with sophisticated and well-organised smuggling syndicates.

The rot in the Customs Department has, in fact, run so deep that the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) discovered that customs officers – the very people that the country depends upon to protect our borders – were themselves facilitating smuggling activities along the Thai border in broad daylight.

In the Road Transport Department (JPJ), corruption is so widespread that almost the whole JPJ office in Seberang Perai had to be replaced following an MACC investigation. More than 79 JPJ officers have been remanded since the beginning of the year on charges of corruption.

MACC believes they are part of a syndicate to protect lorry companies from facing enforcement action. JPJ’s dereliction of duty allows hundreds of unsafe drivers and vehicles to remain on the road thus endangering the lives of other road users.

Corruption has also engulfed most of the city councils in the country with DBKL (Kuala Lumpur City Hall) being one of the worst offenders. Developers and businessmen routinely bribe city officials to overlook non-compliance with building codes and other city bylaws.

A few years ago, a senior city hall official was slapped with 18 counts of corruption including accepting bribes. He allegedly owned 31 condominium units worth more than RM15 million. It was reported at the time that “corrupt practices could be occurring at an unprecedented scale at the council” with some 30 officers believed to have been working hand in hand with their superiors in getting kickbacks from developers.

Has anything changed?

Despite these staggering levels of corruption and incompetence, our politicians spend their time fussing about trivial matters like flags inappropriately flown, anthems sung in other vernaculars or the ashes of a long-dead guerrilla leader.

Instead of taking errant officials to task over serious issues like the mismanagement of entry and exit records, Umno, for example, exploits the issue to accuse DAP of bringing in PRC nationals as phantom voters. This is the kind of asinine and idiotic response to real problems that some of these Umno politicians engage in; no wonder the country is in such a mess.

Indeed, Umno has become so inured to the culture of corruption that it no longer even blinks at reports that one of its former leaders admitted in court that he had to appease his wife with a RM467,000 wristwatch for cutting short their holiday in Hawaii to attend to urgent business at home; never mind that that urgent matter was the severe flooding along the east coast and that payment for the watch came from public funds (as the government alleges).

How a public official can afford a wristwatch that would cost the average Malaysian 12 years to earn is simply staggering.

The governing coalition, for its part, is simply too distracted by its internal squabbles to devote any kind of serious political capital to a sustained and complete overhaul of our rotting national institutions.

Its leaders talk a great deal about fighting corruption but it is mostly a phoney war, a war against a few senior Umno leaders; it’s not that they don’t deserve to be charged – they most certainly do – but going after them alone will not solve the terrible problem of corruption that has engulfed the nation.

What is needed is a ruthless, all-out war against corruption, replete with tough new laws including stiffer penalties and, of course, an entirely independent anti-corruption agency that is answerable only to Parliament.

As well, it is high time for the government to bring in a UK-style “unexplained wealth law” which gives the government the legal authority to compel people to explain their finances, including detailed accounts of how they obtained their wealth.

Until we put in place a truly independent and ruthless system of tackling corruption at all levels of government, we are only fooling ourselves if we think we are really fighting corruption.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.