Economy, Featured, General, Govt, Mind, Politics

Auditor-General as the Joker in our very own Gotham City

I see our Malaysian Auditor-General as the Joker.

Now before you think I meant any contempt against one of the most respected civil servants in Malaysia, allow me to explain myself.

How many of you have watched Christopher Nolan’s 2008 very dark version of the Dark Knight, the one where Heath Ledger played the Joker whose famous line was, “Why so serious?”. Ledger committed suicide after the filming sparking speculations that it was due to the psychological stress of playing such dark arch-villain character. He eventually won an Oscar for the role of the Joker, after his death.

Do you remember the plot? I have one of my favourite philosophers, Slavoj Zizek to thank for the following perspective.

The antithetical villain whose mission is to expose the truth

Some-where in the film, Batman, our beloved superhero and the Police Commissioner decided to corroborate to keep the crimes of the Attorney-General’s secret so that public morale can be maintained. The powers that be literally came together to tell a lie so that the so-called peace and stability of the society can be preserved. Sounds familiar to us?

Never mind if Batman is a vigilante who took the law into his own hands, owns weapons of mass destruction and a super computer which is able to spy on every citizens through their smartphones. Never mind if Batman hides the truth about his real identity behind the black mask of the Dark Knight. Never mind if Bruce Wayne, the true identity of Batman is a billionaire playboy, a real estate speculator, a defence contractor who sells weapons and jets to the military, the elite 1%, who threw yacht party on his loveboat with the entire Russian Ballet troop.

Never mind all that, Batman is our hero. That is basically our idea of a stable society – as long as the sins of the 1% and the powerful are masked in some charitable act or heroic act, they can go on sinning. Business as usual.

And who then is the villain in the plot? The Joker, of course. The Joker whose sole mission in the whole movie was to expose the hidden identity of Batman, his biggest lie and along with it the Government’s plot to conceal the crimes of the Attorney General. He is the anarchic arch-villain bent on disrupting public harmony, disturbing peace and destabilising the society. The Joker is the antithesis of a stable society built on subjecting the masses to lies which in turn sustains the powers that be.

Because exposing the truth means jeopardising public peace and stability, the Joker must be eliminated at all cost. The whole government machinery came upon him – the police, the SWAT team (our local version would be the UTK or FRU), the whole legal system all aim their might against this one individual, the Clown.

Sometimes we do wonder the joke is really on whom?

AG as the Joker in our society

Isn’t it amazing that Hollywood today portrays the heroes as compulsive liars while the only ones seem to be interested in the truth are now the bad guys?

And how the truth threatens to destabilise our society so much so that the defenders of the society, the law enforcers, the Attorney General, the paramilitary police, the Congress, in other word, the Government itself, for the sake of stability, and harmony and peace work hard to preserve the lies which keep everything in order.

I think from this perspective, it is not too impolite then to say that in our Malaysian society today, the Auditor-General and the likes, are Jokers.

Which is why, here in Malaysia just like in Batman’s Gotham City, we threatened to jail people for exposing cowgate scandals, whistleblowers who leaked evidences of corruptions, journalists who wrote about abuses or young Malaysians who questioned certain extravagant lifestyle of some of our leaders or, their wives.

I think in such situation, the Auditor-General (AG) becomes an important institution, if the Joker can be said to be an institution. It is not heroic or self-presumptuous, but precisely the opposite, it is anti-hero, because it must not assume it will save anyone’s “behind” from the fire, but to constantly threaten instability by exposing abuses of the powers that be.

AG’s report as the final frontier of accountability

Notably in the past few years, the Auditor-General’s report is one of the most anticipated government documents in Malaysia. Coming from a generation which has lost trust on the government – not only the federal government, but I think around the world, governments are struggling with credibility issue – so coming from such a generation, I must say that the Auditor-General’s office is indeed the last frontier of trust and accountability.

Don’t get me wrong, we all know the problems don’t we. We know there are abuses, corruptions, leakages, overspending even before the AG’s report comes out. Or at least, folks like Tony Pua or Rafizi Ramli seemed to know the problem.

Remember 2012 Youth Day K-Pop – at that time K-Pop was still kosher – from the very beginning, many have highlighted the extravagance of the event, RM1.6 million just for the K-Pop performance. And it was one of the first issues I raised when I went into Parliament in 2013. I questioned why the cost for the Youth Day celebration ballooned from the original RM15 million to RM55 million and then further to RM68 million. Nothing happened.

Then the AG’s report highlighted it. Woosh, Youth and Sports Minister Khairy Jamaluddin  said, no more Hari Belia in that scale after this, no more K-Pop.

For a year, my friend Zairil Khir Johari spoke about the problems of 1BestariNet project which will eventually cost taxpayers RM4.5 billion over a period of 15 years. Nothing happened.

But when the third series of the Auditor-General’s report was released last November, highlighting the very same problems, the dynamics changed.

Not only there was a vindication of the Opposition’s protest, but now, the government itself has confessed its own sins complete with the revelation of details.

It is one thing when Tony or Rafizi do an exposé in the media. But it makes a whole lot of difference when an official channel like the Auditor-General tells us the problem with data and facts. As Zizek would say, it is one thing to know in your guts your spouse is cheating on you, but it is another when you finally see compromising the photos of the cheating spouse.

No wonder, now parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC) finally moves in on 1BestariNet.

But then again, what’s wrong here? Is everything really good and well?

AG report: Formality or accountability?

We are faced with the question, if they, the AG’s office is so good, why is there still so much abuses in public spending? Hence, the question, is the role of the Auditor-General in Malaysia merely a formality or does it actually promotes accountability?

I think the answer is clear, while the AG is doing a great job, it is now like a nagging spouse, all steam but no fire.

If the government had heeded its own advice – in the AG’s report – we can definitely defer GST this year. Latest numbers from the Prime Minister, GST revenue is expected to be RM23 billion, however, contra whatever exemptions and contra the foregone revenue from the abolished SST, the new consumption tax will give the federal government an extra RM5.6 billion next year, a mere 2% of the total projected federal income in the 2015 Budget. Compare this to the infamous “RM28 billion lost a year from overspending” as reported by the Auditor-General’s report in 2009. If only the government heeds its own advice.

And then, even in the areas which it has power, i.e. investigating public accounts, the Auditor-General has a very limited scope. In a forum in KL recently, the Auditor-General, Ambrin Buang, himself said that they had no authority to investigate the latest two major scandals, 1MDB and KLIA2.

But what is more dangerous is this. What is more worrying is not that the AG is merely a toothless tiger – we can change all that when Pakatan Rakyat eventually comes to power – but rather, by issuing damning reports against itself, the government is essentially disavowing its own crime. So that now, the Chief Secretary to the government can say, “look, we’ve done all this, we are not perfect but we are already moving towards perfection”. So that now, our Minister can say that, “Look at Singapore’s audit report, it’s only 70 pages, so in that sense, we exceeds the norm of accountability for the public sector”.

najib_superheroThis is not menipu rakyat, but more dangerously, it is menipu diri sendiri. The government believing in its own lies. The government now thinks of itself as the righteous Batman. No wonder, weeks leading up to the 13th General Election, comics were distributed depicting Najib as a caped Superhero in tights (like Superman?) with Anwar depicted as the sinister Robber figure complete with a clownish black and white striped shirt reminiscence of Bip the Clown played by the famous French artist Marcel Marceau. There you go, our very own Gotham City.

What then should be done?

There are just too many things to be done to the system as it is, but I want to give four recommendations:

Firstly, the Auditor-General’s office must be accorded real independence. This means, the AG should be made answerable to the Parliament instead of the Executive. Since its role is to ascertain whether public spending reflects the will of the Parliament, the AG should receive its authority from the Parliament. And it makes sense that the AG should not be taking instructions from the same people it is tasked to scrutinise.

Secondly, the authority of the Auditor-General must be expanded. It should be allowed to initiate an investigation into government departments, GLCs, public-private partnership projects which are now trend for major public infrastructure works such as KLIA2, as well as public expenditures kept confidential under the mantle of the Official Secrets Act, such as highway concessionaires and independent power producers contracts.

Also, anyone should be able to request an audit investigation, rather than only the government, but of course such request is subject to preliminary review by the AG’s office to decide whether it merits a thorough investigation.

Thirdly, there must be an enforced follow-up on the Auditor-General’s report where non-compliances are concerned. In a forum discussing this matter hosted by Penang Institute recently, my fellow panelist, Nur Jazlan Mohamed, MP for Pulai and PAC chairman, said that the audit process instilled a fear of audit into civil servants to prevent them from hanky panky. However, my reply to his was, audit alone will not work as a deterrent if there are no consequences against those who are non-compliant. To be fair, not all red marks in the audit report are due to corruption. However, corrective measures must be implemented within a certain timeframe after the non-compliance report. And if there are indeed criminal elements (corruption, breach of trust etc.) involved, actions must be taken against the perpetrators immediately.

Finally, we must strengthen accountability and transparency before the Auditor-General’s report; in fact, way before any public spending. It is no coincidence that the Penang state government was commended in the AG’s report after the implementation of competency, accountability and transparency measures such as open tender, asset declaration by the state executive branch, anti-corruption campaign, freedom of information legislation etc.

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