On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

Be realistic about fight against graft

Last week, Abdullah cleared whatever doubts Malaysians may have by vowing to press on with the campaign against corruption through a two-pronged strategy.

He said the government would continue the anti-corruption campaign through "preventive" and "punitive" measures. From the preventive aspect, it means closing the gaps or opportunities for corrupt activities to occur by improving the public service delivery system and by increasing the transparency and accountability in the public sector, namely through the use of an open tender system.

For example, Energy, Water and Communications Minister Datuk Seri Lim Keng Yaik has just revealed that all bids submitted for new power plants, including those by Tenaga Nasional, will from now have to go through open tender. Although this will only apply to new tenders, it is a change from the previous system where selected companies submit their bids to the Economic Planning Unit which then makes its recommendation to the government.

On the punitive aspect, he said that he had given a free hand to the Anti-Corruption Agency to carry out its tasks, pointing out that the agency had made more arrests last year.

Abdullah emphasised that he would not make more arrests and prosecutions to raise his popularity as he subscribed to the doctrine of "innocent until proven guilty" and he could not interfere in the power of arrests of the ACA.

While public opinion is more concerned with arrests and convictions, it cannot be denied that elected representatives have never been so closely watched. The media has published prominent reports on indiscriminate development of land and, in some cases, questionable approval of land for powerful political individuals.

During a recent discussion with editors, Abdullah said leaders were aware that they were being "watched and scrutinised", and that he believed they would be careful with their actions.

But at the same time, it would also be wrong to go on a witch-hunt against politicians or businessmen on the premise of unproven allegations.  Abdullah has correctly cautioned the media about being quick "to capitalise on the public's curiosity and fascination".

In cases where the ACA has cleared those being investigated, it should be made known to ensure that the media and other interested parties have an accurate picture. That would also be helpful to the reputation of the person being probed.

But I beg to differ with the Prime Minister on the question of offering better wages to civil servants to help fight corruption. Abdullah said that if a person was corrupt, he would always be corrupt, even if he had millions in his pocket.

The civil servants in Hong Kong and Singapore are among the best paid in the world. Both economies have a reputation of having a clean and efficient civil service.

By offering better wages to our civil servants, it will attract the best to join the service. A well-salaried officer is unlikely to jeopardise his career and dignity by taking bribes.

Many of our enforcement officers, including police constables, earn less than RM1,000 a month. And the honest ones, especially those in Kuala Lumpur and Johor Baru, have to take a second job to feed their families. A trip to a fast-food outlet, which many of us take for granted, is regarded as a luxury for some policemen and their families.

The temptation for the lower and middle ranking civil servants, who have to deal with the public, will always be there.  Some of these officers have even asked sarcastically whether it was wrong to accept a small amount when "big fishes" seemed to have escaped, in their bid to justify their actions.

The government must certainly examine the root problems faced by our civil servants, especially those in the lower ranks, if we wish to tackle corruption effectively.

But Malaysians must be realistic about the fight against corruption. Let's not expect the Abdullah Administration to change the system overnight after just one year in office but we will back him to push his agenda.