Unravelling the culture of patronage

By Halimah Mohd Said via The Sun

FOR the MACC alone to crusade against bribery and corruption is an impossible task. To successfully enforce anti-corruption laws, the cooperation of the police and the Attorney-General’s Office is indispensable. With the undivided commitment of the three agencies, there will be some success in hauling the sharks and ikan tenggiri guilty of corruption at the higher levels of authority in the public and private sectors. The takers and the givers of bribes will face the law and hopefully be found guilty.

For a start there must be complete screening and house-cleaning within these enforcement agencies, among the officers and staff who man anti-bribery and corruption posts. If they themselves are gullible and fall prey to corruption, the credibility of the agencies they serve is diminished. Their anti-corruption crusade becomes meaningless.

However without the support of the Malaysian ikan bilis i.e. the ordinary man in the street, national efforts to wipe out corruption through these agencies will be in vain. When the Malaysian public are, knowingly or unknowingly, cohorts in these acts of corruption, they are guilty of perpetuating the very scourge they abhor. They must admit that they themselves are the bribers who corrupt these officers of the law.

What Malaysians fail to see is that they live in a deeply rooted culture of patronage which encourages the currying and carrying of favours along the social hierarchy. When the social hierarchy discriminates between the haves and have-nots, patronage becomes a way of life as it has always been from the days of feudalism.

In the old feudal structure, from the royal houses right through to the foreign emissaries who court them for trade and commerce and the villagers over whom the ruler and his chieftains exercise their rule, the custom of gift-bearing was the norm.

Whether it came in the form of bunga mas and buah tangan; monetary inducements in the form of coffee money and ang pow; or reward for services rendered in the form of upah, these cultural gestures have been a vital part of our eastern culture. We do it without battering an eyelid because they form the basis of goodwill and harmony in our social relationships.

Unfortunately in this modern era of development, these acts have become contrived and positioned to extract the greatest economic gain. Gifts are given for favours granted and profits projected. And as the business relationships grow in complexity, the favours asked for and given are more wide-ranging. The gestures are less direct and the gifts are camouflaged in subtlety and sophistication.

Malaysians do not realise that the designer handbags and other fashion accessories given to them, their wives and children; the sponsorship of private events and holidays abroad; the granting of tithes and titles are all part of the modern schema of bribery and corruption.

In all of this, one thing must be made clear to distinguish the good, bad and ugly. When people surreptitiously give and gain favours to leverage their own selfish positions to reap huge profits, they are corrupted and are more guilty than the person who offers a policeman a RM50 bribe or the underpaid policeman who takes it.

There is no doubt that to gain the trust of the electorate and win votes in the next general election the government must declare a national blitz against bribery and corruption. This is of the utmost urgency as corruption and abuse of power surface again and again as the two banes in the present government’s cap.

There must be an unequivocal statement from the prime minister, endorsed by his cabinet and members of parliament from both sides of the political divide that they are committed to eradicating corruption at all levels of Malaysian society.

For a start there must be the transparent and honest declaration of private assets by the country’s political, public and corporate movers and shakers of society, to be updated regularly and open to scrutiny by the relevant authorities. On the ground there must be a concerted effort to educate the people and create awareness among individuals, organisations and the greater community.

The MACC, the AG’s office and the police aided by citizen movements must launch a nationwide anti-bribery and corruption blitz to inform people about the complexities, types and forms of this despicable disease of society. Public and private corporations must establish principles of good governance, outline rules and regulations, and organise in-house workshops to educate their workforce on the dos and don’ts of ethical conduct.

It is a war that will, ironically, meet with public apathy and skepticism as Malaysians struggle with their conscience and admit to their own moral failings, but it is a war well-worth waging. It is the Malaysian people who must rise and rally together in the anti-bribery and corruption crusade.