NO more gifts, so says the sultan of Perak, not for him nor his consort. As easy as that and a culture of showering dignitaries with gifts ends, thus ending a feudal practice which has no place in the contemporary world of constitutional monarchs, people’s representatives and civil servants. In a democracy, it is all about rule of, by and for the people. In turn, those who run the country are technically merely there to ensure that this democratic principle is properly realised. For their efforts, they should be well remunerated.
This is today’s quid pro quo arrangement and it is well for the implementers to realise that their duty is also to themselves for they are the people, equal before the law with minor exceptions granted to the monarch. The rule, however, is that nobody is above the law, not royalty, not politicians, not administrators, nor anyone else.
Feudalism extracts tributes, not gifts, which play an important role in defining the configuration of power extant under the system. Where the rule of law prevails, however, constructs like noblesse oblige and patronage ends, and within the context of Malaysia, it should have ended long ago, for it encourages a corruption of democratic institutions leading to the people being played out. One such that has plagued the country and stopped it from rising in the ranks of Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index is cronyism, a crime so destructive that, under (then president) Ferdinand Marcos, it nearly turned the Philippines into a failed state.
It is, therefore, an act of exemplary leadership when the sultan of Perak ended gift-giving and taking, even if it affects only him and his family. The inference in the action is clear. When the head of state refuses gifts, would it not follow that everyone down the line should do the same? Transparency International Malaysia has lauded it as the first step in eliminating corruption if the sultan’s example becomes the general rule. Indeed, if the rest of the country is shamed into following his example. But, unfortunately, there is no inevitability in this causal relationship. For, the corrupter gives bribes — to induce an abuse of power — and not gifts.
By all means, end the act of presenting gifts as tokens of appreciation to VVIPs officiating events because it is wasteful. A VVIP worth his or her salt would be happy enough with an applause. It would be a part of the Government Transformation Programme of no-frills events. It might also create a no nonsense mindset among bureaucrats, which automatically makes austerity a daily given. But if the objective is to eliminate corruption, only harsh punishment is effective. Take the example of Indonesia in handing down a life sentence on the head of its Constitutional Court found guilty of taking bribes. Tough and uncompromising, it reflects the nature of the crime, one that has the potential to destabilise the country. And, corruption bleeds the economy. NST Columnist 09/10/2014