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Character – not race or religion – is the core issue

Zunar with a cartoon depicting how deep-rooted racial and religious politics is - ALIRAN

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It was a total lack of accountability and a lack of character that led to the creation of kleptocrats, writes K Haridas.

We live at a time in history when race and religion cannot be the be all and end all of all issues.

Would it not be clearer to state that the fundamental criteria are not race and religion but issues relating to character? Let us consider two American leaders. Trump is Trump and Obama is Obama. What distinguishes them in the context of leadership qualities is not race, religion or colour.

These are issues of identity and very often our mindsets are conditioned to think in such terms. Is it not more fundamentally an issue of character?

US President Donald Trump seems to be all things to all people with him at the centre at all times while former President Barack Obama spoke about values, propositions and causes that serves the interest of the people. I cannot recall anyone accusing Obama of lying. This is not the case with Trump.

For Trump it is all fake news apart from what he believes comes out from his mouth. The language he uses against people in the media does not seem to give people the right to call him names. No American president in my lifetime has brought such disrespect to the office of the US president as has Trump.

Juxtapose this to our situation in Malaysia, and how does the picture play itself out? In Malaysia it is so common to view things in the context of race and religion, and when this happens, such factors tend to take away the seriousness of character lapses that are so obviously evident.

Surely there is no conflict between being religious and being a person of good character. And it is simplistic to juxtapose lapses of conduct and behaviour of an individual on his or her race and religion.

Total lack of accountability

But often, to save respect and credibility relating to race and religion, the culprits believe the best option is to sweep such lapses under the carpet by playing the race-and-religion card. This is perhaps one reason why accountability is so weak in the Malaysian context.

We have had scandal after scandal involving our politicians, corporate leaders, bureaucracy and others at the highest echelons. Let us scrutinise the names of people who have been held accountable following outcries relating to such scandals as Perwaja, PKFZ, Maika, Felda, Scorpene, Transmile, approved permits, Bank Negara, PSC Naval Dockyard, Maminco and Bank Islam. Who are the individuals who have been taken to court and held accountable? Try and recollect the names of Tan Sri’s and Dato’s and you will find it difficult to come out with any names of significance.

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Let us look at the fiasco the National Higher Education Fund Corporation (PTPTN) has created. Students are now held responsible. Yes, they are – but the bureaucrats who helmed this body have gone scot free. I presume there were agreements with the students, their parents and the guarantors. Surely when the debts had reached RM5bn, a red flag should have been hoisted and remedial measures taken.

Instead they went on and on with the debt now reaching RM40bn. We have now created several thousand beneficiaries working in the civil service, government-linked companies and Corporate Malaysia who have dishonoured the first contract in their lives. Will these individuals bring a sense of honesty and trust in all that they undertake? Were there syndicates involved in this affair?

It was this total lack of accountability that led to the creation of kleptocrats. We are all responsible for allowing such a person and leader to do what he has done to the nation. His confidence came from the belief that in Malaysia all this was possible. The silence by Barisan Nasional leaders showed how all of them were complicit in leading this nation to where it is today. “You help me; I help you” – so went former Prime Minister Najib Razak’s slogan!

Unless the Pakatan Harapan Government is able to uphold accountability and the rule of law in the next five years, we will not see the difference. That cases have been filed against leading politicians and members of the bureaucracy is a good start. More figures like the former chief secretary will have to be taken to task.

All about character

We have reached a stage where one must be a saint with flapping wings to speak about character. Yet character is not about perfection. It is more about realisation, growth and the capacity to admit one’s own mistakes and wrongs. It is about being clear about the principles and values that guide one’s life- the non-negotiables that one is clear about.

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Clarity in these areas is what endows one with both courage and a sense of conscience, and these are developed as we exercise our sense of will to do what is right. Today’s education does not seem to impart this capacity inherent in all individuals. Senator Paul Low our former Integrity Minister has suddenly gone all silent. What were the failures of institutions like the Malaysian Institute of Integrity?

This is the time for them to be honest so as to regain respect and credibility. They need to come clean and explain why they could not play an effective role. I am sure there were issues of fear, control and potential loss of employment. It is important for such institutes to come clean so that we can all learn lessons that will contribute to making a difference for the future.

On the contrary the slippery compromised road downhill is often an easier way. You can see many educated ‘geniuses’ from top universities giving in to greed, lust, hate and jealousy and indulging in conduct and behaviour unbecoming of the positions and responsibilities they hold. They continue doing so with no sense of shame or regret. Others by their silence seem to condone such practices.

Cloak of religiosity

Then you have those trapped in religiosity. They indulge in all the external trappings of dress and form, obligations and rituals. They exhibit all the piousness that gives them a religious identity. You meet such people in all religions who then have no compunction in indulging in activities that bring dishonour to their religions. They can be seen dressed in Arabic attire or saffron robes.

Whether it is the Christian right, the Islamic fundamentalists, the Hindutva RSS, or the extremist Buddhist monks in Myanmar, they all have one thing in common. They manipulate religion to gain votes by deflecting people from issues and realities on the ground. Had they attended to these, what a difference it would have made to the lives of ordinary people. They are neither honourable to their own religion nor do they exemplify qualities of character that embody their cause.

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They may be swamijis, ministers, monks or ulama. The worst of them can be found indulging in politics. Their compromised positions, lack of honesty, involvement in corruption or just plain silence in the face of deep dishonesty gives them away. In trying to protect religions, let us not allow such charlatans to get away. It is time they are defrocked and held to account.

Careful with those defectors

The greatest crooks today are highly educated individuals who indulge in fraud and steal in the billions. They survive because good people remain good-for-nothing, and this is why Pakatan Harapan has to be wise in dealing with those from Umno or Pas who seek to join their ranks.

Yes, they can join – but they need to apologise and be held accountable for either being silent or looking away when blatant wrongs were being perpetuated. The scales should be high for their re-entry. They should not be given any cabinet or ministerial positions. Our former trade minister is now supporting Pakatan Harapan in the Cameron Highlands by-election.

Our institutions and their independence have been polluted by such individuals. Their perverted sense of religiosity has to be challenged because they contaminate the regard and respect many have for religion. They are an insult to the sense of accountability inherent in Islam. This goes for all the leaders and those from all religions within the Barisan Nasional.

For Barisan Nasional to claim respectability it has to scourge itself for its past and cleanse itself of the corruption and mismanagement that led to the creation of a kleptocracy. To say that “I did not know” or “I was not involved” when you are a cabinet minister is just not good enough.

Much was made of the 1MDB and other scandals for years, and it would be a great letdown for those who voted Pakatan Harapan if such leaders come in through the back door.

Perhaps, like in Japan, they should publicly apologise to the nation and not hold any office of significance for five years. The cost has been great and there is a price that all of them have to face. This would be in the spirit of accountability.

Focus on reforms

to Pakatan Harapan politicians, for their part, should realise that they embody a hope for a better Malaysia, and it is important for them not breach this trust in the spirit of Reformasi.

If they are serious about reforms, they should focus on issues like correcting the lopsided redrawing of constituency boundaries, cleaning up the electoral rolls, instituting an ombudsman to cleanse our bureaucracy and honouring all their promises.

Time is moving on and although they have performed, we need to see more positive action in all these areas. By doing so, they will set an example of accountability born out of character which this nation so badly needs.

The views expressed in Aliran's media statements and the NGO statements we have endorsed reflect Aliran's official stand. Views and opinions expressed in other pieces published here do not necessarily reflect Aliran's official position.

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26 Jan 2019 12.53am

Well written article.

26 Jan 2019 12.51am

Good piece of writing by Haridas. But who reads all this. It is people who are in agreememt with the views stated.
The people who are guilty or the people who can bring about the necessary changes, do not or cannot read it or even if they do, many may not understand the message fully.

Benedict Morais
27 Jan 2019 9.48am
Reply to  Anantha

Agree with Anantha’s views. It is a superb article on a topical issue, covering all the salient points in great detail. At the end of the day, it is like preaching to the converted! There has to be a way to get this article and others of a similar vein to the intended target audiences as well as to the public at large.

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