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Nepotism, like corruption, is a crime in Malaysia only if the wrong party is guilty of it

NEPOTISM IS ALIVE AND well in Malaysia. As elsewhere in the world. When Rupert Murdoch considers who should oversee his vast business empire after him, the products of his loins get a head start. So when the Genting Highlands chieftain retires at 85. It is common in the business and financial world. In politics and in the civil service, it is frowned upon but it exists after a fashion. When one has the power to do it, why should one demur? The dynastic succession is now a political ideal as a monarchy or a commercial fact of life. Often this nepotic evidence is indirect, allowing the children of the leader to make hay while daddy (or as is as common, mummy) governs or rules. In several Asian countries, sons succeed fathers. Competence is implicit in several, but not all, of them. In Singapore, its long time Prime Minister and now senior minister, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, has sons and their wives in important cogs in the republic's wheel; one, Mr Lee Hsien Loong, will be prime minister before this year is out. In North Korea, Kim Chong Il succeed to the presidency when his father, Mr Kim Il Sung died in 1994. In Malaysia it varies. Two cabinet ministers owe their position to their late fathers: the second prime minister, Tun Abdul Razak, and the third, Tun Hussein Onn and their sons, Dato' Seri Najib Tun Razak and Dato' Hishamuddin Tun Hussein sit in the cabinet. The DAP leader, Mr Lim Kit Siang, grooms his son, Mr Lim Guan Eng, to succeed him. It is considered a "right" to allow the children to make hay while their fathers shine.

Let us begin at the top. The former Prime Minister, Tun Mahathir Mohamed, believed in it firmly. His wife, Tun Siti Hasmah Ali, was his medical adviser in his 22 years in office, with an independent office and perks far out of proportion an outsider would get. His brothers-in-law and his children swarmed into business as if they were born to it, several fell by the wayside and had to be rescued often with public funds. He had relatives on its personal staff. He did not encourage his children or siblings into politics. But he did in every other sphere of government and business. His successor, Dato' Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi, has his son-in-law run his private office, with son and daughter amongst his closest advisers. Here again competence is not the issue. It is taken as read that when one is in a position to dispense favours, one should not fail. Once this was a jailable offence. Today, it is only if you are on the wrong side of whoever is in government. More than two decades ago, a senior member of the Malaysian civil service resigned to enter politics in Kedah, and rose to be in the state executive council. He sat in on one committee which awarded a lucrative contract to a company owned by his wife. He had, like the former deputy prime minister, Dato' Seri Anwar Ibrahim, crossed Tun Mahathir's path. He was convicted and jailed. But when the federal international trade and industry minister, Datin Rafidah Aziz, presided over a committee which dispensed favours and contracts to a company owned by her son-in-law, it was conveniently swept under the carpet.

So with this background, is it any wonder that civil servants now get into the act. The Selayang Municipal Council president, Mr Bakhruddin Othman, is one. He chaired a meeting which appointed his daughter as a permanent, penshionable administrative office with the council. He would not recuse, even when it was raised. Months earlier, the committee with him in the chair, appointed his son-in-law, her husband, as an accounts assistant in its finance division. No councillor present would oppose it. They know the dangers if they dared to confront the president. Their future depends on keeping mum. But obviously all this struck home. Just before the meeting ended, he apologised to all present, which included the press for what he did. "I apologise about just now because I had a personal interest," he said. He did not elaborate, nor the Council committee rethink it. The good president obviously did not see anything wrong about it. What use is he if he cannot get his daughter and son-in-law jobs in the council he presides? But lips are sealed. The mistake is not after all a mistake but an administrative inconvenience that can be righted by accepting the mistake for what it is.

When the Malay Mail, which reported on it, asked the Selayang state assemblyman, Dato' Ahmad Bhari Abdul Rahman, about it, he did not want to be involved in it. "Why do you drag me into this? You were at the meeting and you saw what happened. I don;t want to give you any comments". When asked why none of the other councillors raised the matter, he said: "No comment". One did speak off the record. He thought Mr Bakaruddin breached no rules as the committee he chaired only affirmed what a sub-committee had endorsed it. But final appointment is made by this committee he chairs. When the Gerakan representative on the Johore Bahru Town Council lobbied for his brother with the Council to revoke a penalty, and then refused to step out of the meeting discussing it, and it became public, the party asked him to resign. This is not all. When the Ampang Jaya municipal council appointed a bankrupt as head of its enforcement unit, it raised a stink. It turned out there was more to it than had been revealed, that the state mentri besar, Dato' Seri Khir Toyo and another on his executive council were involved.

When the politicians break the law, both moral and legal, with impunity, have interesting and convenient excuses why, and get away with it, so would those under them. The civil servant does not see why he along should veer away from temptation. The few cases that are unearthed reflect a malaise the government would never accept: that the thief is one who gets caught, not those what are not. So it is used as a political weapon to punish those the leaders want. The moral argument of corruption was used to convict Dato' Seri Anwar. Corruption amongst the loyalists are worn as a badge of honour. The distinctions are blurred between good and bad, with the good pushed into a corner. When corruption is endemic as it is in Malaysia, with the government believes it could be controlled with a slap on the wrist and fearsome threats of damnation. It would not. The enforcement is not there. Mr Bakaruddin is only the tip of the iceberg. Hundreds, indeed thousands, in the civil service and other government centres and department flout the law with abandon. Can you blame or punish him for what he did, when his political masters take upon it as a divine right?

What is frightening about this episode is how perilously close Malaysia is to countries like Zimbabwe and Nigeria. We sing praises of our bankrupt Treasury so we do not have to consider the sins of our uncontrolled profligacy. There is no serious discussion or thought to attempt to resolve the problems of our profligacy. So far the remedy is to suggest a minor problem solved, piece-meal than on the whole. But building a frame in Malaysia's underbelly resting on a financial and political quicksand - we are good at this - is not how this would be resolved. The political system is run on corruption. The political establishment understands this, and finds creative ways to make it difficult for corruption to be proved in court and the offenders jailed. A political arrogance makes it worse. Worse, the political and constitutional system is hijacked and converted into irrelevance. All that we stood against, embellished by the teachings at school and home, is now the norm. Tun Mahathir would not address it. He still has many skeletons to hide - his big crisis comes when UMNO produces its accounts, which its members had been asking for years. At the end of it all, corruption is one side of the coin to nepotism, the illegal acquisition of wealth and other ills we blame other countries for their predicament.

M.G.G. Pillai
[email protected]

Terbitan : 2 Januari 2004

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