Grabbing graft by the horns

By Karim Raslan, The Star

Corruption is one of the biggest challenges facing Asia’s rapidly maturing democracies. The regions’ leaders must acknowledge that power cannot exist without responsibility.

ACROSS the region, the failure to fight graft has made ordinary people lose confidence in the political process, the police and the courts of law. Popular frustration and anger is clear for all to see.

Interestingly, India is witnessing the emergence of influential non-institutional players responding to the society-wide sense of revulsion. This comes at a time of galloping economic growth in India — some 7.7%.

However, despite the good news, the world’s largest democracy has also been beset by a stream of high-level scandals — ranging from the improper sale of 2G telecom licences to mismanagement and graft in the preparations for the recent 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi.


Indeed, its rising prosperity has made these scandals all the more unacceptable to its middle classes.

Given the context, it’s unsurprising therefore that a figure like Anna (“Big Brother” in Hindi) Hazare’s anti-corruption campaign has found so much resonance in Indian public life.

A 74-year-old civil society activist, Hazare has made the fight against corruption his life’s work. A military man turned Gandhian, he spent many years promoting his brand of socio-economic and spiritual development in his home village of Ralegan Siddhi, in the booming state of Maharashtra.

By the 1990s, however, Hazare had turned his attention to beyond his village.

He started targeting corruption in his home state and employing the tactics of his icon Gandhi by using selective hunger strikes against politicians and policies he disapproved of.

Matters came to a head this year when Hazare demanded that the Indian government adopt legislation his supporters had drafted for the appointment of an anti-corruption ombudsman. Hazare claimed the original Bill was ineffective and allowed for too much external political interference.

Hazare’s independently-constituted Jan Lokpal (Sanskrit for “People’s Protector”) ombudsman commission is set to have the power to investigate all levels of the government (including the Prime Minister), directly impose punishments on offenders and provide protection for whistleblowers. It would even have the power to obtain wire taps on suspects.

When Premier Mamohan Singh rejected his demands, Hazare famously launched a “fast-unto-death”, leading to his arrest in Delhi. This, in turn, led to a groundswell of support as well as nationwide demonstrations.

While the Congress-led Indian government initially held firm, the outcry eventually forced them to back down. Hazare was released and Manmohan promised to draft the Bill according to the former’s specifications.

What’s this got to do with Malaysia? First, it’s a sign that desperate times call for desperate measures.

Hazare’s tactics reveal his almost complete disdain for parliamentary politics.

Notwithstanding his hardline position, he’s managed to capture the public imagination and much of this is due to his shrewd understanding and manipulation of popular grievances.

Frankly, I think Malaysia needs its own Anna Hazare. We need a charismatic, morally irreproachable figure to inject some sense into our public discourse.

Moreover, Hazare’s Jan Lokpal certainly sounds more appealing than our MACC.

If that’s the case, who could become Malaysia’s Hazare? Is it even possible for any public figure to develop appeal across ethnic lines these days?

Would middle class Malaysians now flush with democratic consciousness be willing to imitate their Indian counterparts in dispensing with constitutional niceties to fight corruption? In short, how far would we be willing to go to clean up our system?

What would we do if we had to absolutely choose between democracy and good government? Does democracy sometimes need to be rolled back to save it from itself?

What happens when people want more freedom and democracy, but without the difficult process of strengthening the underlying institutions of state?

Second, the Hazare affair ought to be a warning sign to Malaysian politicians. Leaders are not indispensible — if you fail to deliver you will be replaced sooner or later.

India’s elite failed to quell the rising tide of corruption. Indeed, they have been complicit in perpetuating it. This, in turn, permitted a figure like Hazare to step into the moral vacuum they vacated, imbuing him with the authority and political capital to dictate his terms.

Power cannot exist without responsibility. If Malaysia’s rulers think that they really know better and that it would be an unmitigated disaster if the country were led by anyone but themselves, then they best start bucking up, especially in the issue of corruption.