Those who enjoy privileges and positions have to show their spine if Malaysia is to take the right road, says K Haridas.
The default culture is so pervasive and powerful that many are sucked into this from a perspective of self-interest.
Why is there a need to change a culture when those in power stand to gain? It is their self-interest that drives this culture. Such a culture then perpetuates itself.
What is it that defines this default culture? Power, patronage, money, nepotism and corruption are hallmarks of this default culture. This is so evident today in Malaysia that any talk of integrity is at best ‘window dressing’.
Although there are good intentions as marked by the Rukunegara, 1Malaysia, Islam Hadhari and even Vision 2020, the reality is that none of these good intentions see the light of day. These are so quickly undercut because of a lack of leadership commitment to these causes.
The latest is “One heart, one life” or “Satu hati, satu jiwa”. If I believe in this and hold this to be true, then I would be the first to caution the mufti who slandered others by referring to other fellow Malaysians as “kafir harabi”. There is no tone form the top leadership that sets the agenda for a culture of integrity.
If there was leadership that believed and aspired for such causes, they would set the tone and challenge those who step out of line. Although the mufti of Pahang is under investigation, such statements reveal the polarisation so evident in our society.
Human nature is the same irrespective of class, race or religion, and there are good and bad people in all religions and faiths. It is not the imperfections of religion but the inability of individuals to realise their oneness to God and to fellow beings. A culture defined by the Rukunegara would have enriched our diversity.
This is why we need to create a positive culture that all of us can subscribe to in very specific ways, one which spells the cornerstone of our diversity. The elements are there, but there is no focus, only sloganeering. At the same time, issues relating to religion, ethnicity, colour, language and nationality can all be manipulated.
Brexit reveals to us that when facts meet an emotion, it is mostly emotion that wins. So many voted because of the fear of the Turks coming in, Islamophobia; others on issues relating to immigration, religion and being foreign. Many did not even understand the complexities relating to the case for staying, yet voted to exit out of fear.
We can only change our prevalent culture if enough people stand up and speak out for what is right and best for the nation. We have today a bunch of discredited leaders, manipulating to stay on in power.
The failure is in Umno. In any other nation, the dismissal of the deputy leader of a party would have resulted in a power struggle, perhaps fresh elections so that the democratic process continues. Not in Umno, where self-interest shaped by money, patronage, position and cronyism determines the outcome.
There is no noise even from within the party supreme council. Every one nods their heads knowing what would happen to them if they stood up for their convictions, if any.
New cronies who support the leadership are immediately elevated to positions as ministers. Umno is loyalty-driven rather than values-driven. Where is the sense of conscience that helps distinguish between right and wrong? Issues of individual conscience and convictions seem totally absent.
We have an Institute of Integrity and even a minister in charge of this portfolio. They are at best silent – or when they talk, it is an attempt to explain the inexcusable. Integrity requires of them to take the lead and speak out. Yet, they choose to be realistic than act with integrity perhaps protecting their rice bowl or their pensions.
I understand that there are certified integrity officers who have been sidelined or even transferred for taking their positions seriously. Not surprising. when the default culture is so strong. How can people of integrity survive in this default culture?
Even when good, honest people resign, they are unable to speak candidly. Tan Sri Abu Kassim Mohamed applied on three occasions to leave the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission (MACC). What does this highlight about his frustrations?
Although he may have not been pressured, it does not appear absolutely true that his decision was prompted by the offer of a prestigious international job. This is where integrity matters. Very few will believe what he says because many understand the pressure that has been brought to bear on the MACC. The government finally agreed to release him two years before the end of his tenure.
He understands well the default culture and the pressure under which the MACC operates. With two years remaining in his civil service tenure, he has to protect his position, bow down and depart.
There is the perception that he has been frustrated in his position. The MACC interrogated the prime minister, and we have heard nothing since. But in the case of Lim Guan Eng, one is amazed at the speed at which the MACC worked and the attorney general responded. This only enhances the perception of selective persecution!
All this can be explained by the power that is so evident in one person. There are no checks and balances, and there are few if any from within the establishment who would stand up to be counted.
Revolving door: From civil servants to GLC directors
The nexus between the civil servant and the politician is very evident. It is the politician who decides what he could get in the future. Many retired civil servants sit on the boards of government-linked companies (GLC).
They sit on several boards and earn to the tune of RM100,000 per year per board. Their incomes may vary from a few hundred thousand annually to nearly a million ringgit depending on the number of boards they sit on.
While some of them may be very good, they bring into the private sector their bureaucratic experience. For these GLCs, the link with these bureaucrats is perhaps helpful when it comes to dealing with top officials in the respective ministries.
They have received their titles and a handsome pension. There are about 727 of them from the civil service, diplomatic corp, judiciary, politicians and regulators (source: Focus Malaysia). It is also true that they earn more than their pensions, and nobody begrudges them this.
But is this not the price of silence? Having completed their service, the attitude could be one of retirement and playing it safe. Those who do not fall in line will lose such opportunities. Does this not in a subtle way strangle the independence of our institutions?
In addition to their handsome pensions and annual directords’ fees, their sitting allowances could vary from RM500 to RM2,000 per board meeting. One can question what they bring to the private or government sector.
Yet, by this route, one thing is certain: this blocks them from standing up for what is right. Perhaps apart from a very few, the large majority of them trade silence for convictions.
They play an enabling role in a nation known for its deference to titles and honorifics, and they act as enablers who can short circuit processes and approvals. Why should any of them stand up and cry foul when the interest of the nation is being compromised? To do so would be to place them in a position where such benefits could be jeopardised.
So the culture of silence marked by self-interest prevails. This is why so many good people just tolerate what is going on. They are not ready to sacrifice and stand up for character, conduct and ethics and for the nation.
Integrity is more than just being honest. While honesty highlights one’s conviction to tell the truth in one’s personal relations, integrity is more than just being honest. It is about the reputation for persistent and unwavering honesty and having the courage of convictions to say so.
It is about exhibiting a level of honesty in all areas of one’s life be it personal, interpersonal, social, management and in the leadership that one provides.
What is lacking in Malaysia are the voices of people who know and understand what is wrong but lack the courage and integrity from within themselves to speak out. Integrity has a price, and ultimately, it is a question of whether each one of us has the capacity to speak out for values and principles. It is more than being compliance driven.
Look at all our top civil servants who, after having served the government, now have glamourous positions as chairpersons/directors of several companies either at the national level or at the state level. The income and benefits they receive silences them to the prevailing default culture.
The challenge as one said to me was to face what the late Tan Sri Ani Arope, Tun Suffian or Tan Sri Ahmed Nordin had to endure. Once you speak out, then the default culture takes over. The Group of 25 must be admired for their courage and convictions.
Time to speak out
Many more have to step out and speak out in clear terms as this default culture is ruining our country. Institutions like the police force, the Elections Commission and the attorney general’s office are examples of institutions that carry very negative public perceptions.
How can this nation continue to be led by a discredited leader both within and internationally? There have been so many stories about Arab donations, Jho Low’s company and deals gone sour for which citizens will ultimately pay a heavy price.
There is no accountability. People like the displaced attorney general do not have the integrity to speak out the truth. They not only compromise themselves but do great harm to the nation.
“As I am, so is my nation,” and ultimately, everyone has to take responsibility for where we are now as a nation. Those who enjoy privileges and positions have to show their spine if Malaysia is to take the right road. Fashions, decorations and slogans are hollow especially when the leading political party is known for its manipulation and led by a discredited leader.
A culture of silence only spells doom and gloom.
K Haridas, an Aliran member, is the current chair of the Business Ethics Institute of Malaysia and of the Malaysian chapter of Initiatives of Change International. He is also actively involved in NGO work and in education.