Etymologically, the word “democracy”, which comes from the Greek root words “demos” and “kratos”, bear the meaning that the people are in power, and that all democracies are participatory.
True representative government comes with the promise that there is individual participation by citizens in political decisions and policies that affect their lives, directly rather than through elected representatives.
In practice, however, all the world’s democratic governments are participatory through their elected parliaments. In young, functioning democracies, where the people are better educated and exposed through the media and other communication tools, they are fast awakening to their rights and the government expediently claims to put citizen interests first.
Accordingly, citizen expectations that the government will deliver on its promise are high. I cannot speak for other nations but we know that in Malaysia, the government makes this claim repeatedly.
Everything is being done in the interest of the rakyat, the people.
The more often the government says this, the greater the people’s expectations that the promises will be delivered.
One can say that public trust and confidence in the government are in direct relation to the efficacy and speed with which they manage their delivery systems.
Dead fish floating in Sungai Tonggak near Gebeng. A very important aspect of fighting corruption and building ethics, governance and integrity into a democracy is to make sure that the right regulations and laws are in place.
And, citizens respond and react as fast through the media, public forums, community and workplace interactions, social networking, complaints bureaus, street demonstrations, state assemblies and Parliament, and ultimately through their votes at the general election.
On the Internet and social media, news gets posted fast, and response is immediate, reaching a wider audience than any newspaper or tabloid can have. In modern parlance, they go “viral” in seconds.
Communication can be effective through these instantaneous communication modes. People can be efficient communicators and workers if these modern tools are managed with care and efficiency. And people expect the same fast communication with and from the government.
However, on the ground, we know that we are slowed down considerably by government bureaucracy equipped with traditional systems and mechanisms.
To a great extent, this affects the attitudes towards the work of the public servants that manage them. They become slow and sluggish because they know that the decisions and actions by their colleagues and department heads will be not be forthcoming.
Citizen expectations of fast decision-making and delivery are more often than not let down, and they become complaining and cynical. In the last couple of decades, regular media reporting of both petty and grand corruption committed by public officials has made people aware of the extent and seriousness of the problem in the country.
There is growing citizen demand seen in newspaper articles and columns and letters to the editor, as well as postings on social media that concerted efforts must be made by the government to eradicate corruption among public servants, the very people entrusted with the duty and responsibility of managing the country’s resources.
The government has responded with some relevant initiatives, two of which are the establishment of the Anti-Corruption Agency (ACA) — now rebranded as the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC) — and the Integrity Institute of Malaysia (IIM), each with its own role and function, objectives, mission and vision.
What is strategically important is that their functions are now realised in complementary and collaborative efforts to eradicate corruption and promote integrity.
By setting up integrity units in public and private sector bodies and getting the relevant institutions and corporations to sign integrity pledges, they work at different levels, directly and indirectly, to instil ethics in government and business.
The government imposes rules and regulations, and conducts programmes to instil good governance in its ministries and institutions and their various departments.
Integrity and ethical standards are being infused into the government systems and the civil servants that manage it.
This is the claim and the promise. More recently in 2011, a ministry overseeing governance and integrity was established and is now relentlessly pursuing its objective of getting the commitment of the relevant bodies and businesses to erect a sound integrity and governance infrastructure.
It looks as though Malaysia is on the fast track to putting ethics to work in business and government. The public must welcome these initiatives and give their full cooperation.
Three questions are pertinent here: HOW does Malaysia as a democracy fare in promising its citizens a corruption-free society?; ARE our citizens happy with these initiatives and cooperating effectively?; and, CAN one assume that because these mechanisms are in place, Malaysians have high ethical standards and are not corruptible or corrupted?
A bane in the MACC’s cap in its fight against corruption is the Corruption Perception Index (CPI) released annually by Transparency International (TI). For the last few years, Malaysia’s ranking has been in the 50s among more than 170 countries.
The CPI measures the perceived level of public sector corruption, and most people believe, rightly or wrongly, that it is the most accurate measure.
Concerned citizens therefore opine endlessly about Malaysia’s relatively low scores and ranking, compared with that of Hong Kong and Singapore, the two Asian city states that are among the top 10 scorers.
As a result, the Malaysian government’s efforts to eradicate corruption are thought to be less than successful. The MACC has to constantly manage the negative public perception and assure the public that the TI figures are improving annually and that the commission’s own data show greater success rates.
Figures aside, we know through media reports that corruption is still rampant, if not rife, at all levels of Malaysian society. Malaysian citizens are still giving and accepting bribes, abusing public office, seeking “rent” and favours, and covering up their corruption trail with impunity, sometimes with the help of the enforcement agencies.
We know that the standards of integrity, ethical and moral conduct in work and business are still questionable. There seems to be an acceptable Malaysian way of doing business.
There appears to be some kind of under-the-table complicity between the givers and takers of bribes and graft, and the stumbling block in corruption investigations is often the lack of evidence and witnesses.
Whistleblowers do not come by easily and even when they do come forward, they often turn hostile on the witness stand.
Let us revisit the current scenario where the government and those holding public office have verbally pledged to uphold integrity and fight corruption.
The movers and shakers in business and industry have signed pacts to observe rules of good governance, transparency and accountability both internally, within their organisation and externally, in their dealings with the government and other business associates.
However, from what is being reported about the wheeling and dealing in some companies being investigated, the abuse of power is rife as the top management of these organisations, that is the chairman, chief executive officer (CEO), chief financial officer (CFO), directors and trustees entrust their company lawyers and accountants with the task of coming up with the most strategic business plans to rectify past maladministration.
To the company accountants and lawyers, this provides them with the opportunity to further manipulate loopholes in the laws. The public, including shareholders, are continuously fed with promises, explanations and rationalisation plans to ensure them that their interests are being protected.
The overriding justification is that they are doing it in the interest of the company, the people and the nation. These goals and objectives seem noble and honourable, indeed!
The organisation cares for its stakeholders and the original spirit of democracy is upheld — “of the people, for the people and by the people”. I would like to suggest that, in reality, there is a big gap between citizen expectation and citizen commitment.
My bolder suggestion is that Malaysians seem to have a warped understanding of ethics and integrity, and are to a great extent, gullible, if not corruptible.
People are quick to point fingers at the government and those in positions of authority, but do not realise or want to admit that they themselves are part of the web of corruption and abuse of the law that takes place.
A democratic government is not an abstract construct, but a physical one, comprising people who bring to bear upon their conduct and behaviour, their socio-cultural values and traditions, both in their private lives and in the workplace.
The democratic rights and liberties of citizens come with great responsibilities for them to uphold the laws of the land and the norms of society spelt out both by decree and by convention.
This is something that needs to be emphasised over and over again. Malaysians must accept that there are laws and rules of conduct and behaviour, of ethics and governance incumbent upon us as responsible citizens in our respective fields.
Written laws, rules and regulations exist in every functioning democracy, but there are also unwritten norms and conventions, namely the religious and cultural traditions which instil in us standards of ethical behaviour.
Malay cultural values such as adab and religious principles such as amanah roughly equivalent to the English notions of ethics and integrity, which should govern the Malays in our daily lives, must also be our guiding principles at work, in government and business.
I’m sure there are similar notions in the traditions of the other communities. In the last 50 years, Malaysia’s young democracy has seen rapid economic development which opened up enormous opportunities for doing business with a government committed to building the country’s physical, economic and technological infrastructure.
Unfortunately, this has also created opportunities for making quick and easy money by giving or accepting bribes to induce quick decisions in one’s favour.
The private sector gives and the public sector takes, the public sector gives and the private sector takes, in the vicious circle of graft, bribery and corruption.
Gullible citizens, who are also the government officers managing the country’s resources and enforcement agencies such as the police, Customs and Immigration, succumb to the inducements offered by the equally corruptible man in the street wanting to bid for a tender and shortcut procedures or beat the brunt of the law.
And so, the old cultural tradition of scratching one another’s backs to cari makan or earn a living continues to this day. It has been suggested by cultural experts that this is the phenomenon of living together in peace and harmony.
This is how the communities coexist, and Malaysians accommodate one another in order to partake of the country’s progress and development. It seems that this is real equity at work. It would be unwise to end on this depressingly negative note; so, I would like to stress that a very important aspect of fighting corruption and building ethics, governance and integrity into a democracy is to make sure that the right regulations and laws are in place.
More importantly, we have to ensure that these formal guidelines are drafted to be as watertight as possible, and enforced consistently and fairly, so that justice is executed without fear or favour.
Unethical government and business leaders must stop instructing their crafty and unethical lawyers and accountants to look for loopholes in corporate and tax laws, governance procedures or office rules and regulations in order to cover their tracks.
There must be a genuine desire by Malaysians at all levels of society to be honest and truthful in their daily lives at home and at work.
People must be committed to achieving greater balance between their ambitions and moral and ethical standards of behaviour.
One must not be compromised at the expense of the other. Most of all, our leaders and role models in government, politics, business, academia, schools and institutions of learning and the other key organisations, in their bid to build this nation, must search their hearts and minds for the best ways to balance Malaysia’s economic achievements with the highest standards of moral development.
Ethics and integrity must not just appear in slogans and headlines but must be a living entity in the soul of the nation and its people.
This quest is not an impossibility, as Malaysians are blessed with the rich cultural and spiritual heritage of the world’s major faiths and religions, Islam, Buddhism, Christianity and Hinduism, as well as the other belief systems.
It is not far-fetched to suggest that the most relevant moral values and principles in these faiths and religions be extracted and drafted into a national code of ethics and integrity.
The Rukun Negara has summarised the following five principles:
BELIEF in God;
LOYALTY to king and country;
UPHOLDING the Constitution;
RULE of law; and,
GOOD behaviour and morality.
Instead of paying mere lip service to our expertly crafted national philosophy, there must be genuine effort to revive it and to translate it in detail into a national code of ethics and integrity.
A version of this was presented at the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Foundation Conference last month.