By Sim Kwang Yang
(Link edited by YM)
'An Examined Life' appears in Malaysiakini every Saturday.
Pagar makan padi. That is the old Malay proverbial description of corruption. It translates awkwardly into “rice-eating fences”, meaning that the fencing erected to protect the rice field turns around and devours the rice instead.
The Malay language is a colourful tongue in its native form, if you can steer clear from the deadened officialised version. In this case,the old proverb portrays beautifully the concept of betrayal of public trust involved by public officials in enriching themselves. As a human vice, corruption is as old as prostitution, and yet it has probably wrought much more havoc upon human societies than prostitution, because it can be a curse upon the stability and prosperity of nations.
In China, corruption has been an inseparable feature of government from ancient times to the present. An old Chinese proverb has it that nine out of 10 public officials are expected to be corrupt. That is what I would call a conservative estimate. There, entire dynasties have declined and fallen because of widespread corruption within the centralised governing bureaucracy since the time of the Chin Emperor 2,500 years ago.
Corruption by senior eunuchs trusted by the Emperors was particularly vicious, as they were the only ones close to the Emperor and his many wives, giving them unlimited access to the royal ears. The so-called Western liberal democracies nowadays may frown upon corruption as one of the cardinal sins in public life. It has not always been so.
In the earlier part of their historical evolution, corruption was as rampant as it is now in developing nations and failed states. Francis Bacon (1561 -1626) was one of the leading thinkers in the West, and yet he was also prosecuted for taking bribes during his tenure as Lord Chancellor. He pleaded guilty and said that presents never influenced his decision. Honour among the corrupt commenting on his fall from grace in public life, Bertrand Russell has this to say in his book History of Western Philosophy, "The ethics of the legal profession in those days were somewhat lax. Almost every judge accepted presents, usually from both sides.
Nowadays, we think it atrocious for a judge to take bribes, but even more atrocious, after taking them, to decide against the givers of them. In those days, presents were a matter of course, and a judge showed his ‘virtue’ by not being influenced by them." Only philosophers will discuss about the rule of ethical behaviour in such an unethical practice as corruption. Corrupt public officials are like thieves who steal from public money in one way or another, directly or indirectly. Apparently, even corrupt people demands honour among thieves.
In our country, our democracy is young, and we are still struggling to build the institutions and mechanism to arrest corruption. Unfortunately, the problem is deeply rooted at the very top political level. The whole election process is terminally polluted by various forms of vote buying. The exchange of votes for cash and other giftsis particularly rampant in Sabah and Sarawak.
Naturally, election candidates who spend a fortune on his campaign expect some returns upon holding offices of various grades. Corruption on such grand and pervasive scale cannot be kept secret. Truths and half truths have been circulated in the grapevine like wild fire. When state powers hang in the balance, then elected representatives are traded like goats and buffaloes. Such deals are always struck insecrecy, so one can only speculate as to why certain YB would jump party. The first reaction among a cynical electorate is often that the YB has been offered a sweetened fat pig.
Here, I cannot avoid getting a little personal. I served from 1982 to 1995 as the Member of Parliament for my hometown of Bandar Kuching. By some accounts, commentators have remembered me as one of the more effective opposition MPs. I have always tried to be as clean as a whistle.
A personal example.
Even so, there was this lingering suspicion among some voters and my former party members that I was “bought”, just because I chose to retire from active politics, or failed to turn up in any election to support the opposition candidate. That is neither here nor there. What needs telling is that during my tenure as an MP, invariably some very fat offers came my way. I could see how elected representatives of the people can be tempted. It almost always starts with a middle-man. Recalling the events now, this employment of an agent must be a precaution in case the person being presented with the gargantuan bribe decides to spill the beans. The real person behind the offer can always deny that he knows anything about it. Such a middle man, a lower ranking official of the ruling Barisan Nasional approached me and suggested a covert meeting. At the appointed hour, in cover of darkness, he laid out the deal from his boss. If I agreed to the offer, I would be flown first-class to a top hotel in Singapore. There, I would be given a few millions in cash, plus shares from certain very lucrative companies held by a certain political elite in Sarawak. I did not even have to resign from my party or my position. All I had to do was to sign a letter of undertaking, and thenceforth proceed to England to pursue my further studies, and be absent from the political scene until the next general election. It was understood that I should not seek re-election. I had met this middle-man with the intention of finding out how such buying of YBs works.
But having been thus offered, I had a twisted idea. What if I took the offer, donated the money to my party and some charities of my choice, and then refused to be a turn-coat, continuing politically as I had always been - a brazen opposition MP. Would it be ethical to do such a thing? What would be the ramification of such a creative move? I presented the idea to my then party boss. He told me he had never been offered such a deal, and we discussed the lighter aspect of this dastardly form of political corruption. Then he advised me to just turn it down flat, instead of playing around with it. Such unethical betrayal of a corrupt contract may bring unforeseen circumstances. I returned to the middle man and told him no.
To my surprise, he was glad that I turned down the offer, even if it meant that he would lose out on his 10% commission worth a few hundred thousand Ringgits. Should I have gone to the ACA? Knowing how that agency works during that period of time, more or less, I would have wasted my time if Idid. That does not mean that the ACA cannot be useful now, for tactical purposes even, as recent events have shown. But it is too much to expect the ACA alone, as it is, under the PM’s Department, to go after the really big shark.
By now, leadership by example has taken roots. Corruption by public officials at the very top level for past decades of independence has spread the cancer of taking bribes in various forms down through the entire body politics. The cancer has not reached the terminal stage of metastasis yet, as has already happened in other countries, especially in Africa and other parts of Asia. But it is certainly one of the most distasteful aspects about living and working in Malaysia.
To eradicate this rampant corruption would require many radical institutional changes, and I am glad some silver linings around the dark clouds of rice-eating have become dimly visible.Hypocritcal ethos
A complete change of government would be the most radical but effective way of clearing away the corrupt politicians and their cronies. Unfortunately, I cannot see any sign that the BN will lose its hold on power any time soon, in the next, or in future general elections. Obviously, Malaysian voters are not angry enough about widespread corruption. Here, I cannot help but lament the hypocritical ethos of our Malaysian society.
Informed people generally have a rough idea about how serious corruption is in high places. But they have more or less resigned themselves to a form of fatalistic resignation as if no matter who comes to power, the corruption will continue unabated anyway. They will reject the idea of changing the government, because – according to their perception – the opposition would be equally corrupt when in power anyway. The most cynical voters, especially businessmen, will also tell you they do not mind corruption, as long as it is not too painful. It is good for business. They will say any political shark can take a bite, as long as it leaves some bones and morsels for those down the ladder in the political food-chain. It is perverted ethics like that which has spawned ruinous corruption on a large and expansive scale. This sort of corrupt ethics is what makes government officials corrupt!
At the end of the day, widespread corruption by government officials is a mere tell-tale symptom of a much greater moral crisis infecting our entire national soul.
About the Author:
SIM KWANG YANG was DAP MP for Bandar Kuching in Sarawak 1982-1995. Since retiring in 1995, he has become a freelance writer in the Chinese-language press, and taught philosophy in a local college for three years. He is now working with an NGO in Kuala Lumpur, the Omnicron Learning Circle, which is aimed at continuing learning for working adults and college students. Suggestions and feedback can reach him at: email@example.com.