Thursday, 10 October 2013

Bad Civil Servants, Bad Ministers and Impugnity

Sin Chew Jit Poh
8 October 2013
The recent behaviour of Zahid Hamidi the Home Minister has been the subject of a lot of discussion, much of it negative. This is understandable of course. His refusal to face hard questioning on the police losing weapons; his crude bullying of a journalist; his supposed support of a group officially declared a gangster organisation; and his supposed threatening to shut down any newspapers that report what he said, this is really behaviour unbecoming for a minister.
My initially thought was that this behaviour is not at all surprising, coming as it does from a person who in the past has shown the same bullying tendencies. With the UMNO general assembly looming, it is to be expected that he will up the ante with his macho man act. It is after all what the UMNO faithful like. The rule of law is not something that they have shown any understanding of and when the Home Minister says things like the police don’t need to give a warning before shooting someone they think is a criminal, I imagine it warms the cockles of hard core UMNO members.
I did not really want to write about the ridiculous statements that Zahid Hamidi has been making. I believed that it was simply a typical action on his part, with just that bit of extra belligerence thrown in to play up to his supporters. In other words, it was merely an unsophisticated politician playing unsophisticated politics. I thought there are more important things to talk about like the Auditor General’s shocking (but sadly, once more, not surprising) report exposing the millions of ringgit lost by government departments which happened one would think through at the best, sheer incompetence and at the worse, rampant corruption. Then it occurred to me that both these things are related. Allow me to explain the connection.
The wastefulness of the government has been soundly criticised and many suggestions have been made for ways with which to avoid it in the future. Punishing the civil servants who have made such poor decisions is one. Transparency in the system is another (for example by making all purchases and expenditure available on a department’s website). I even heard an ingenious suggestion to check the tax returns of companies who have made over priced sales to see if such transactions were declared. If not, then there is not only tax evasion which can be punished but also evidence of possible corruption.
All these suggestions are good, but I am wondering what the root cause of this wastefulness is. We can point to the loss of integrity amongst the civil service. Perhaps this is the reason, a loss of moral fibre in the ranks of the servants of the people.
If this is so, then why did it happen? In the civil service as it is anywhere, there are good people and bad people. Good people, will, by and large do the right thing regardless of the temptations and bad people will always try to bend and break the rules for their own good. A solid and transparent system could make it harder for them to do so, and it is obvious that such a system is not in place here in this country. Of if there is one, it is not being implemented properly.
However, I would suggest there is an even deeper problem; one that cannot be solved by a systemic change. It seems to me that there is a culture in this country which is like a silent disease. It pervades governance and the results can be seen in the Auditor General’s report and the behaviour of the Home Minister.
This is the culture of non-accountability. Those with power act with the kind of carelessness or even possibly corruption with what appears to be impunity. And why shouldn’t they when their actions do not appear to bring with it any repercussions. How many people have been punished due to the Auditor General’s last report which also exposed gross wastefulness?
But even without such punishment, don’t civil servants have to answer to their own conscience? Isn’t there a sense of shame when using your power in such a poor manner? Perhaps at one time there was that culture of integrity.
But how can such a culture survive when you see your political masters like Zahid Hamidi getting away with such terribly wrong behaviour and statements. If the political masters are not accountable for what they do, then is it any surprise that the servants feel the same kind of invulnerability?

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