Tuesday 31 January 2012

Corruption and grand corruption


JAN 31 — If you have ever expressed a political opinion in public, taken part in a student demo, driven with an expired road tax disc, made out in public, agreed to overpay a cabbie, given duit kopi or expressed an opinion in favour of all citizens being equal before the law, this column is for you.

When the number of things a society sees as illegal makes it hard for even the most moral of citizens to be completely law abiding, then growth in corruption is inevitable. When added to this are the labyrinth of race-based laws and rules and the opacity in tender awards and other dealings with the bureaucracy, the opportunities for corrupt behaviour are endless.

When people simply do not believe in the merits of a particular law or in the transparency of their execution, and where even protesting against a law can be a criminal offence, there are really only two choices if caught breaking the law. Go through a tedious, expensive and sometimes humiliating legal process, or pay a bribe.

No wonder that for a long time petty corruption has been seen to be a way of life in Malaysia. No surprise either then that Malaysia’s score in Transparency International’s corruption perception index has been steadily on the decline. On a 10-point scale, where 10 represents no corruption, Malaysia has been sliding from 5.1 in 2008 to 4.5 in 2009, 4.4 in 2010 and 4.3 in 2011.

Therefore it may come as a surprise that a Transparency International Malaysia (TI-M) survey last month showed that 90 per cent of Malaysians would seize the opportunity to fight graft. What has changed that despite a higher perceived rise in corruption, there is now widespread public anger and resentment against corrupt practices?

Of course the parlous state of the economy and the pressure on real incomes may have something to do with it, but the larger reason seems to be the contrast between the perceived official treatment of grand corruption and that of petty corruption.

To the ordinary citizen there is tremendous anger when on the one hand shoplifters caught with less than RM100 of goods can be sentenced to jail time and those accused of pilfering millions through corrupt practices seemingly walk free. This is precisely why Bersih chief Ambiga’s recent comment on giving amnesty to the small fry while going after the big fish in terms of corruption found such resonance.

Strictly in terms of the principle, the law punishes corruption not on the amount stolen but on the commission of the act. But the amount lost to corruption is a powerful symbol of the gulf that separates the haves from the have-nots. An ordinary citizen just cannot comprehend how it is possible for well-connected individuals to walk away with millions of taxpayer monies when every little driving, financial, moral or sexual indiscretion on their part carries the very real risk of heavy fines and jail time.

The reality of a justice system where one is presumed innocent until proven guilty demands that due process of investigation be followed before people are charged with a crime. However, when there is a perception of double standards from investigating agencies and selective prosecution depending on the accused’s stature and political affiliation, there is bound to be public anger.

In the court of public opinion, when the money and trust of the nation as a whole is seen to be abused, cases of grand corruption need to be treated very differently from those of petty corruption. When the alleged crime affects the entire country, justice needs to be exemplary in the sense of being seen to be delivered transparently and quickly without fear or favour, with media reporting that is consistent and responsible.

Like it or not, the scale of public outrage is directly linked to the amounts involved and the vigorousness of the official response. When the sums are huge and the perceived response is weak, spontaneous agitations by ordinary people like the famed one by Anna Hazare of India may become the new reality.

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