Corruption & Its Impact On Nationhood - The Challenge for Civil Society in Cultivating the Culture of Integrity

This keynote address by Anwar Fazal was presented at the 1st National Congress on Integrity, on 16 July 2005, held at the Sunway Convention Centre, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia.

"Corruption is one of the greatest challenges of the contemporary world. It undermines good government, fundamentally distorts public policy, leads to the mis-allocation of resources, and particularly hurts the poor. Controlling it is only possible with the cooperation of a wide range of stakeholders in the integrity system, including most importantly, the state, civil society, and the private sector."
- excerpt from Transparency International's mission statement

Today, Malaysia is at one of those special crossroads.

We have before us the scourge of massive corruption, a cancerous culture that has sunk rottenly deep into the diverse fabric of Malaysian society. We also have before us a great opportunity. A new political leadership, a new integrity institute, a new energy, beckons us in civil society to give our best to fight corruption - through cultivating and asserting integrity.

We have the possibility of being part of a turning point and for all us to make real things happen for real people. We have an opportunity to make a difference.

The framework

Let me share with you my thoughts on moving to making that difference.

I will use a framework from one of our oldest civilizations, acupuncture. That therapy requires 3 things: a map, needles and people skilled to read the map and operate the needles.

The celestial map

First, the map. I start with the celestial map of the larger context in which humanity is operating.

If Almighty God established an interplanetary commission to investigate how we earthlings are managing this planet, the members would be shocked at our irresponsibility - our rating for 'planet-hood' would probably be between poor and dismal!

What is wrong with the world

First, they would find an 'economics' driven largely by "casino & crony capitalism", 'mad' or speculative money, pornography, gambling, puerile entertainment and various kinds of criminal activities. The greatest growth indicator they find will be the "Gross Criminal Product" - GCP! And they will find mushrooming new cradles of modern civilisation - the tax havens, the fiscal laundrettes!

Secondly, they will find a `society' marked by violence and inequity where we have billions for space exploration and armaments but not the dollars and cents for basic health, education and shelter for billions of poor.

Thirdly, they will find an 'environment' so destroyed that the air, water and soil is often taking paths of no return and leading communities of living things into self-destruction sometimes called "ecocide".

But it is not the economics, equity or ecological failures that will strike them as the foundation of our seemingly reckless and maddening approach to human security and sustainable human development. The "father of all failures", they will discover, is a governance failure, and the "cancer of all cancers" they will discover is a systemic web of bribery and corruption - local, national, global and social, government and corporate.

The Interplanetary Commission will find, among the littered landscape, a culture of greed, fed by parasitical power and mediocrity.

They will be shocked at the lack of respect for both the revelations and the injunctions against bribery and the exhortations for honesty and accountability - the hallmarks of integrity. They will find the politicians can be bought, media can be bought, judges can be bought, businesses can be bought, even places and shortcuts to heaven, it would seem - the Mercedes Benz collection of one 'gatekeeper' priest in a neighbouring country is an indication of that trend!

The spiritual map

Even more recently, the Enron, Worldcom and other mega scandals, bred and hosted in the USA, now unarguably the greatest power on earth and self-declared champion of freedom and good governance, has demonstrated corporatism at its devious worst and exposed its cancerous web of connections and conspiracies. When the most powerful breeds the most evil we really need to worry.

What do our spiritual traditions say? Transparency International has shared these profound statements and you may have more.

The law of Moses said "You must not distort justice, you must not show partiality and you must not accept bribes for a bribe blinds the eyes of the wise and subverts the cause of those who are in the right."

The law of Manu from the Hindu tradition "Men who are appointed by the King to protect his subjects generally become hypocrites who take the property of others, and he must protect those subjects from them."

Confucius states "Virtue would make officials too benevolent and hence, corrupt", so there must also be ruthless enforcers if need be. The 'zero-tolerance' policy of one of our neighbours shows how it can be done.

Buddha states "Unjust officials are the thieves of people's happiness … they defraud both ruler and people and are the cause of the nations troubles."

Islam - the Quran reminds us "(do not) give bribery to the rulers" and the Prophet Mohamed (s.a.w.) elaborated "Allah curses the giver of bribes and the receiver of bribes and the person who paves the way for both parties."

Christianity - John the Baptist reminded his followers "Do not extort money from anyone…"

The sick world of bribery and corruption today is not one bad dream - it is a growth industry and everyday reality for millions of people and involves billions of dollars of public funds that would otherwise be used for the public interest.

And so what do we do? Is there hope for a culture of integrity?

History has taught us one thing; that one thing above all has made a difference - leadership. It is said that society is like fish - it rots from the head down. Translated into other code words - it means "political will" at the top and 'popular will' from the bottom. It is leadership at all levels - people who are prepared to stand up against injustice and dishonesty at the community level, in government and corporate board rooms. We see many new stirrings of courage fighting corruption in many places of the world, spearheaded by groups like Transparency International (see www.transparency.org) and many others. Globally, and in Malaysia, the work is making a real difference. And now in Malaysia, we have a new exciting opportunity - a new Prime Minister, the Malaysian Integrity Plan and the Malaysian Integrity Institute.

The Malaysian challenge

How can we? What are the lessons in history? Well, it is a long history and I will share 5 highlights because I believe 'remembrance' is important if we want to build anew!

Firstly, some 200 years' ago, Penang saw the first magistrate ever appointed, and he was soon dismissed for corruption! That was ominously a bad start. Have we learned? Recently, the past president of Transparency International Malaysia, Y Mulia Tunku Abdul Aziz, described one of the mega projects currently resurging, the Penang Outer Ring Road (PORR), as a "first class corruption case study", an example of bad governance and a 'disaster'. The Penang Bridge which a number of us opposed a generation ago because we feared the collapse of investment in public transport was another mega project deserving of a due diligence study. Now we are thinking of a second bridge, while our public transport continuous to be in a pathetic state.

We have not learned. We seem to continue on mega mistakes by supporting them with more mega mistakes!

Secondly, exactly 50 years' ago, in 1955, we had a national 'commission' to enquire into matters affecting the integrity of the public service. It was a thoughtful work in the best of the public service tradition and worthy even of a literary prize - it is beautifully crafted. It was headed by Justice E.N. Taylor, and included a young man, Captain Hussein bin Onn - later to become our prime minister and an icon of integrity!

Its 'findings' chapter quotes "Dividing false from true, with sword and even scale" and make some interesting observations and I quote (selectively, of course):

"We believe that bribery and other forms of corruption are practised in all the vulnerable departments";

"… there is clear evidence of abundant opportunity …";

"… the most vulnerable departments are those like the police and customs";

"… there is very little genuine public anxiety on the subject";

"… there is a widespread habit in Malaya of seeking an intermediary. This habit plays directly into the hands of unscrupulous agents who purport to bribe officials but embezzle the money. … Tipping, the giving of presents and entertainment are prevalent";

"… the situation is not satisfactory and substantial improvement is easily attainable by sustained application of the large variety of remedies which we recommend";

The Commission made 31 recommendations which i will be happy to share with you, if you can email me.
Sadly, the Commission thought that the basis of its appointment was "an exaggerated view of irresponsible statements". Perhaps because of that, it was not taken as seriously!

Again, when will we ever learn?

Thirdly, this year is also the 25th anniversary of the "First National Citizens Seminar on Corruption and Society". It was held on 2 November 1980 at the historic Hotel Majestic in Kuala Lumpur. Organised by Aliran, a civic organisation based in Penang, then led by Dr Chandra Muzaffar. There is a wonderful publication of 87 pages and still being sold at RM4, a treasure trove issue of thoughts and ideas. It was dedicated "to the victims of corruption past, present and future." Yes, the future, that was so prophetic!

The Chief Justice of Malaysia, at that time, Yang Mulia Raja Tan Sri Azlan Shah, gave the opening address and made a brilliant keynote. The seminar subjects covered included, corruption and spiritual values; corruption and the consumer; corruption and the environment, and a very detailed analysis of corruption generally and in Malaysia, specifically. Most of the speakers are still alive, although a generation older and some of them are even here, or around still 'voicing' the truth to power!

Please read this seminal book.

Again, we seem to have not learnt. We only succeeded to make the transition from "exaggerated view of irresponsible statements" to a situation of cancerous and widespread corruption that has affected and damaged our economic, ecological and equitable developments."

Fourthly, another Malaysian icon to be remembered and read is the foremost scholar on the sociology of corruption in the world. He wrote an important work on that subject in 1968 and his book on "Corruption: its nature causes and functions" is a classic. Dato Prof Syed Hussein Alatas can still provide a thesis on the subject anytime, anywhere. His book was published in Malaysia by S Abdul Majeed and Co. his 9 point characteristics of corruption have not been better stated:

a) a betrayal of trust;
b) deception of a public body, private institution or society at large;
c) deliberate subordination of common interests to specific interests;
d) secrecy of execution except in situations which allow powerful individuals or those under their protection to dispense with it;
e) involvement of more than one person or party;
f) the presence of mutual obligations and benefits, in pecuniary or other forms;
g) the focusing of action on those who want decisions and those who can influence them;
h) the attempt to camouflage the corrupt act by some form of lawful justification; and
i) the expression of a contradictory dual function by those committing the act.

Two days' ago, he launched another book. And it was officiated by Y Mulia Raja Dr Nazrin Shah, another generational change. The prince warned us - corruption may become an industry!

Of course, will Malaysians read? Perhaps, after all, it is national reading month!

Lastly, some 10 years' ago, a few of us began another wave of community concern and Transparency International. Malaysia (TIM) was born. It quickly brought together key civil society groups. It established itself as one of the critical global hubs, including hosting a global conference. Its president, Y Mulia Tunku Aziz, who co-founded TI Malaysia together with me, became the global deputy president of Transparency International. Our first few years operations were undertaken from my office, at the United Nations building in Jalan Damansara, with Anis Yusof now an Assistant Representative of UNDP, as a key supporter. We quickly made a strategic alliance with the Malaysian Institute of Management (MIM) and the Malaysian Institute of Public Administration (INTAN), and moved forward quickly and forcefully. TIM, now registered as the Malaysian Society for Transparency and Integrity is a key public interest in this field.

Truly, we have come a long way and today, we are at a special crossroad.

The twelve targets agenda

So much for history. What should we be seeking? Just four words could be our mission:

"Fighting corruption,
Promote integrity"

I suggest the following 12 point agenda (in no particular order), which I call the "twelve targets":

1. get Malaysia to ratify the United Nations Convention on Corruption. At this time, 28 countries have ratified. 30 are needed for it to come into force. Let us be on a global standard quickly.

2. seek the independence of the Anti Corruption Agency - free it from executive control and, possible manipulation.

3. seek the independence of the judiciary, whose integrity was severely challenged in recent times.

4. seek a Freedom of Information Act and a review of the Official Secrets Act - we need some sunshine and transparency in our government processes. Sadly, we seem even to be afraid to state the state of corruption of our air quality! (note: the government has recently released the results of our air quality, when the haze returned to Malaysia with a vengeance!)

5. a clear transparent and competitive procurement policy that is overseen by an independent auditor. Out with crony capitalism!

6. the protection of 'whistle blowers' and rewarding of private and public servants, who expose such crimes of corruption.

7. the independence of the press, so that they can report without fear or favour. Thank God, for Malaysiakini in the meantime, and the internet generally.

8. the establishment of a ombudsman system - a civil servant with legal powers to investigate and report on maladministration - the national complaints service could be expanded to include this.

9. a national campaign of "tak nak" ("say no") to corruption like we are doing with tobacco. Hopefully, we will not give out the advertising contracts in a similar way, but develop a participating and major popular mobilisation with the involvement of all sectors with competitive ideas that are incubated and awarded to the best to propagate. Make 9 December the United Nations Day Against Corruption, a major popular mobilisation tool.

10. a serious look at "money politics" and funding of political parties - if political parties in power are rooted in the culture of money politics and if there is no separate between political parties and business favours, we will continue to be in deep trouble.

11. pay the civil service well, especially taking into account housing and transport, health and education - expect the best and pay for the best. We do not want to achieve "excellence in mediocrity". We have to be ruthlessly against "rewarding mediocrity".

12. lastly, the top leadership, cabinet, MPs, the leadership of civil service and corporate leaders should sign a pledge of zero tolerance in corruption.

That 12 point agenda can be part of the framework, our homework for today, and perhaps, forever because in the end, it has to be eternal vigilance.

But how to do it? - the seven chakras

There are seven basic principles about getting things done which I like to share. I call them the seven chakras (life-forces) of social mobilisation:

  • Develop a light but participatory coordination and operating mechanism;
  • Link and build on existing initiatives and programmes in the country;
  • Give leadership to those with compelling interest in outcome;
  • Emphasis contribution of others recognising differing motivations;
  • Scan and bring on brand new constituencies and participants;
  • Foster energies away from protest to proactive partnerships;
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate - popular mobilisation with the active involvement of media specialists will be critical.


I have shared with you a map, some needles and the people skills needed. I want to end by sharing with you what I call the "Panchasila of Power" (panchasila means five principles in the Sanskrit language), which I have developed over the years:

1. The power of "ONE" - never underestimate the power of a single individual. Through their example and action, individuals have transformed the world as history shows.

2. The power of "MANY" - make links, networking, alliances, create "network of networks", partnerships can build our strength - social movements must link and build on the core values we share. We need those rare talents, of what I call the "transcedentals" - people who bridge movements and issues!

3. The power of "HALO" - belief and drawing from both spiritual traditions and globally agreed norms. negotiated through the United Nations can provide powerful universal and inner as well as, external strength.

4. The power of "INFORMATION" - access to research, education programmes and working with the media can provide the outreach we need for transformation change. Links with the United Nations' other multilateral agencies and Transparency International, their resource, information networks and global agreements need to be better developed. The new information technologies give us a great opportunity to develop "action gateways" - a portal on everything about fighting corruption.

5. The power of "SUCCESS" - every victory, however small, should be shared and celebrated. That glow inspires and grows.

Our new sense of practical passion and people power should be driven by a new spirit:

Anyone, anytime, anywhere
Everyone, everytime, everywhere

I look forward to working together with you on these - fighting corruption, promoting integrity!

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