Ensuring integrity in government contracting

Dennis Ignatius

[1] News that Hannah Yeoh’s husband won a Selangor government contract has attracted a lot of attention, and rightly so. Whenever family members of serving politicians win government contracts, citizens have a right to question just how kosher the deal was.

[2] Remember that we live in a country with a long history of politicians abusing their power to enrich themselves. Indeed, many of our politicians and their family members have become exceedingly wealthy through government contracts. And how often have we heard them justify their abuse of power with arguments like it was all above board, that they had no hand in the decision to award a contract to a family member, that it is not fair to exclude a well-qualified bidder simply because he or she may be related to a politician, etc. After years of corruption and abuse, voters know to be sceptical about such assurances.

[3] Time and again, voters have made clear their unhappiness over contracts being awarded to family members of politicians. Indeed, support for Pakatan Harapan was largely premised upon the coalition’s promise to put an end to decades of corruption, nepotism and the abuse of power. Given public sensitivities, it is surprising that the state government didn’t go the extra mile to ensure greater transparency in awarding the contract.

[4] Apart from being one of the better performing ministers in Cabinet, Hannah Yeoh is known for her integrity; I cannot see her pulling strings to steer the contract to her husband or otherwise abusing her power. And, having listened carefully to her husband’s side of the story on a recent podcast, I’m sure he’s sincere and more than qualified for the task at hand. But, given the long history of abuse in the awarding of contracts and the general lack of trust in politicians, the concern of civil society groups and the public at large is not unwarranted.

[5] MACC chief Azam Baki’s rush to judgement – dismissing the case even before a proper investigation could be carried out – only heightened public wariness. How does the public have confidence in the integrity of an organization that digs deep when it involves critics of the government but rushes to clear members of the government? The MCMC’s blocking of lawyer Shamsher Singh Thind’s critique of the contract didn’t help either.

[6] Some politicians from previous administrations have seized upon the issue to cast aspersions on Hannah’s reputation. It is, of course, sheer hypocrisy for those who have long tolerated the abuse of power and even profited from it themselves to throw stones now.

[7] The whole controversy highlights the need for greater integrity and consistency in the government’s procurement and tendering process. If we condemned the award of contracts to family members and cronies in the past, we must be consistent in demanding accountability and transparency in this case too. If we don’t demand answers in this case just because it involves the PH government or a respected minister we lose the right to question contracts awarded by future governments.

[8] Given the horrific abuses in the past and the real possibility of it happening again, I am inclined to the view that as a rule family members of politicians ought to be excluded from bidding for government contracts. It may be unfair to them, but it is the price that politicians (and their families) must pay in the interest of protecting the integrity of the procurement and tendering process and maintaining public trust. Politicians, in any case, ought to be held to higher standards given the immense power they wield.

[9] If some unique and special circumstances warrant consideration of a family member of a minister, extra steps must be taken to ensure full transparency and the integrity of the whole process. At the end of the day, the public must be satisfied that everything was done to ensure that there was not even a hint of impropriety in the awarding of government contracts. Voters and taxpayers deserve nothing less.