On the Beat | By Wong Chun Wai

A real worry when graft becomes acceptable

Last week, the report made it into most national newspapers with one television station interviewing several political figures as a follow-up. One Umno Youth leader questioned the accuracy of the survey.

But a similar finding of the survey, if not the same, had been made last year shortly before the inaugural National Congress on Integrity in July. The report had said that about 31% of students in public institutions of higher learning said they would take bribes if they were in positions of power and had the authority.

The study, it was reported, involved 8,000 individuals, out of whom 650 were university students. The study was commissioned by Datuk Seri Abdullah Ahmad Badawi when he was deputy prime minister and chairman of the Special Cabinet Committee on Government Management Integrity.

It was coordinated by the Anti-Corruption Agency and conducted by academics from Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia and Universiti Utara Malaysia.

Last week's news reports basically reaffirmed what most Malaysians already know.  We have become so used – if not immune – to corruption that it did not even spark off a controversy.

But herein lies the danger. When corruption is regarded as an acceptable way of enriching oneself, then it becomes a culture. Once that is entrenched, it is much more difficult to fight the scourge.

Let's be frank. The government cannot fight graft by setting up institutes and conducting seminars. The Integrity Institute of Malaysia can create awareness but wrongdoers – the corrupt and those who abuse their positions – need to be fearful of the authorities.

The lack of political will and the seemingly powerless ACA do not help in the battle against corruption.

Legislation can act as a deterrent but real enforcement is the answer. No one can inculcate integrity, that's for sure. Worse still, when low-level civil servants feel that accepting small bribes is justified because they perceive the powerful ones are doing the same and getting away scot-free.

It is not just in Malaysia but in many countries, where individuals whose backgrounds are tainted by corruption and criminal breach of trust, are no longer shunned by society but accepted and even welcomed.

Some continue to keep their titles even after serving jail sentences.

When that happens, what kind of message are we sending to our young people? These actions of ours, rightly or wrongly, give the impression that taking and accepting bribes is all right. Just don't get caught.

A survey by the Merdeka Centre last year reported that one in three Malaysians would pay a RM100 bribe to a traffic policeman to be let off a speeding offence that carries a RM300 fine.

The poll found that two-thirds of bribes involved the police, mostly for traffic violations, and are in the range of RM100 or less, and that they involved mostly low-level personnel.

In another survey by the Kuala Lumpur Society for Transparency and Integrity and the Malaysian Institute of Management a few years back, it found that people with higher incomes were more likely to comply with demands for a pay-off.

But we really don't need these surveys to tell us that corruption has gone from bad to worse. Every time a festival approaches, we cynically tell one another that more road-blocks would be set up to nab motorists who break the speed limit.

Money is asked for in oblique terms. Instead of issuing an immediate summons, there will be "negotiations" on how the traffic offence can be "settled".

In fact, with all the closed circuit television equipment, the police should just send the summonses to the motorists.  Setting up road-blocks along the North-South Highway should be stopped. It is not only dangerous but gives rise to suspicion that there are crooked policemen on our highways, when speed-trap cameras have already been installed.

But corrupt policemen are the least of our problems. We should be more concerned with the loss of taxpayers' money when projects become more expensive because there is a lack of good corporate governance and business ethics.

When businessmen prefer to pay off corrupt civil servants because delays mean an increase in cost and when foreign investors bypass Malaysia because of such delays, that's when the slide begins, and the culture of corruption starts to take root.

The Prime Minister has rightly harped on the importance of the delivery system, which is essential to prevent delays, costs and corruption.

But there is this perception that the fight against corruption has lost its steam. Malaysia was ranked 39th – a drop of two spots – in the Transparency International Corruption Perception Index for 2004.

The 2005 index showed that we are still in the same position.