Najib must deal with corruption

The message is clear. Corrupt countries like Malaysia may continue to dream: the reality is that if they are happy to bed down with corruption, there is no hope in hell or heaven, take your pick, that they will ever achieve high income status.


PRIME MINISTER Najib Abdul Razak has done it again. His high income vision for Malaysia, following so closely on the heels of his yet to be fully charted 1Malaysia has caught the nation off guard.

Najib, while remaining largely uninspiring as a leader, is at least aspirational. Nothing wrong with indulging in a little fantasy from time to time, but Najib has to learn to control his propensity for grandstanding. I don't suppose it is too rude to ask Najib to spell out in the clearest possible terms what precisely he has in mind when he talks about 1Malaysia. Is it fair to ask us to support a concept that he has difficulty in articulating to our satisfaction?

Najib cannot be so naïve that he cannot see what the inherent problems are in the way of turning Malaysia into a high income nation. For starters, a country such as ours which has been so mismanaged these last thirty years in all the important areas of governance is a most unlikely candidate for the High Income Country Stake.

That does not mean that we have not the potential; indeed we have but, I am afraid we have squandered it beyond belief by putting in place investment, trade and industrialisation policies that have tended towards excessive, crippling control rather than encouragement to compete globally.

As long as the spirit of the New Economic Policy is kept alive, competitiveness, the key to growing the economic cake, will remain on the back burner.

Najib and his UMNO colleagues may be dismissive of the debilitating effects of corruption on economic growth that will turn a middle income country such as Malaysia into a high income one. Let us look at countries at the top of the economic league table – countries that enjoy high income status. Finland, Denmark, Sweden, Holland, and closer to home Singapore, Hong Kong. Japan, Taiwan, New Zealand, and Australia are among the least corrupt countries in the world.

The message is clear. Corrupt countries like Malaysia may continue to dream: the reality is that if they are happy to bed down with corruption, there is no hope in hell or heaven, take your pick, that they will ever achieve high income status. Corruption is the antithesis of best practices, and as we have seen time and time again, all over the world, they are mutually exclusive.

Najib needs to fully understand the prerequisites for economic sustainability. The government under his stewardship must adopt rules, and values, based policies underpinned by systems of checks and balances as a minimum citizens' charter. Key institutions such as the judiciary, the office of the attorney-general, the police and the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission have to be revamped to ensure that they perform their duties and functions in accordance with the law.

An incorruptible independent judiciary goes a long way in generating confidence within the business community. It says a lot about the reputation of the judges in our country when disputing parties prefer to seek arbitration elsewhere if they can help it. We need to clean up our act quickly as this is the only way we can show the world that we mean business, and that we have the best justice system that money cannot buy.

While it is necessary to rebuild our institutions at the earliest possible opportunity, more to the point is the need to put men and women of integrity in charge. Integrity is not restricted to any one race in our multi-racial Malaysia. A point often ignored is that if we put crooks and scoundrels in charge, we are putting the future of our country at very considerable risk, and yet the record of government management remains one of unbridled corrupt excesses because the government apparently is more at home with the crooks. The records speak for themselves.

A few years ago, at an anti-corruption conference in Cambodia, I had the honour of sharing the rostrum with Jim Wolfensohn, the President of the World Bank. It was his last overseas appearance before stepping down after a long and distinguished career at the WB. He was asked by a reporter what three bits of advice he had for Cambodia in its search for sustainable economic development. He said advice number one, fight corruption; advice number two, fight corruption, and advice number three, fight corruption!

So, Najib, the solution is staring you in the face, and all that is required of you is unadulterated political will. When as a result of systemic corruption government projects are conservatively estimated to cost 30% more than in a non-corrupt country, then is it any wonder foreign contractors concerned about ethical business bypass our country? We need a complete review of our systems of governance because there is much that has gone wrong with the way we manage our affairs. Of course, the tragedy is that there is none so blind as will not see.

In summary, therefore, a high income status is about competitiveness, open and accountable policies. It is also about sustainable economic and social development, equality of opportunity, respect for cultural diversity, human rights and public duty in the public interest. Is Najib up to it?