MyPerspective – In search of integrity in public life

 |Jul 23, 2016
Tunku Aziz says nothing seemed to happen on government top officials highlighted in the annual Auditor-General Report for incompetence and fraud.
Tunku Aziz says nothing seemed to happen on government top officials highlighted in the annual Auditor-General Report for incompetence and fraud.

Interest in ethical public behaviour is growing in societies as far apart as steamy Malaysia and frigid Iceland.

People the world over have begun to realise that human progress is unlikely to be sustainable unless ethical standards are adopted wholeheartedly by those in authority.

Today, ethics claim centre stage whenever policy issues are discussed and resources allocated.

Both government and private sector organisations recognise from long experience that they can have the best plans, systems, rules and procedures in place, but they will still not succeed unless ethical values and standards become an integral part of the business equation.

One of the most worrying problems we face today is corruption, which has spilled over into areas that were once thought to be immune from it – religious institutions such as Tabung Haji in Malaysia and the Vatican in Rome are but two examples that come to mind.

Nothing is sacrosanct any more, and nothing is spared from the ravages of unethical behaviour.

When we put ethical values and standards on the back-burner, we create a vacuum that corruption will invariably fill.

We, as a community, will begin our steady descend into the abyss of moral degradation.

It is only a matter of time, sooner rather than later, before we are persuaded that corruption is a business necessity.

The world of business and politics is littered with stark reminders of what can happen when we ignore an important maxim – that which is legal may not necessarily be ethical or moral.

My favourite is, “Nothing can be politically right that is morally wrong” – Benjamin Rush.

We see the truth of this on our own doorstep with regular monotony when our actions are guided solely by legal conventions.

Here in Malaysia, thanks to the Najib administration’s very comprehensive government transformation programmes, the first ever undertaken by any government since Merdeka, we have come a long way in transforming the way government business is conducted.

I dare say we have all benefited from the improved service delivery and all-round efficiency: the application of modern management science and technology has made all the difference.

However, science and technology cannot change man’s propensity to abuse trust.

Trust or the concept of the common good is the cornerstone that locks and holds together all the essential elements of honest, principled governance.

Leaders whether appointed or elected must be prepared to act as a moral compass to show those for whom they are responsible the right path to take in performing their public duty.

Unprincipled leadership exacts a heavy cost, and the damage inflicted on the economy can be counted in billions of ringgit.

In addition, human and emotional costs are inflicted on innocent citizens whose only sin is to put their trust in leaders who cannot be trusted.

What about the damage to our country’s reputation? Is this not important?

Each year the Auditor-General religiously produces his report, a compendium of serious breaches of, and transgressions against established financial procedures.

His report varies little from one dreary year to another, the same old story detailing with regular monotony, instances of fraud and sheer incompetence by top civil servants bordering on the criminal, who seem to have lost control of their departments.

Debates on the report are cursory at best and downright laughable at worst.

Ministers fall over one another to give their solemn assurances that these lapses would not happen again.

The chorus is joined by the Chief Secretary to the Government, promising that dire consequences would befall the fortunate offenders in his vast empire.
They don’t fool us because we know from long years of watching on the sidelines this annual pantomime that is staged for the entertainment and amusement of us whom they think are little children who can be fobbed off with sweet promises of better things to come.

Then it is business as usual until the next Auditor-General’s glossy report appears, containing much the same depressing recital of acts of outright criminality involving state assets and property.

Nothing will change because offending civil servants know the proud civil service tradition of closing ranks when under “external” threat will protect them from harm.

I regret, looking back, the civil service was not my first choice when I was looking for work as a young man.

Integrity is no longer the luxury of the virtuous.

It has become one of life’s necessities.

Tunku Abdul Aziz is the former Special Adviser to former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan on the Establishment of the UN Ethics Office and former Adviser to Bank Negara Malaysia.