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Memo to Najib: Serve society by serving your sentence!

The country cannot afford to go through a repeat of the last four decades

Convict Najib - THE STAR

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By M Santhananaban

It is the most ironic of times. Najib Razak, who adored the “cash is king” slogan, is obviously struggling to come to terms with the prison sentence and the mandatory fine imposed on him by the nation’s courts.

The former prime minister is finding out the hard way whether cash is really king!

Before he became PM, slogans and catchwords had made us a somewhat peculiar country.

Such slogans seem to have become indispensable. They have been an integral hallmark of the reign of almost all our recent prime ministers. These leaders approached the governance of the nation by over-relying on the power of slogans.

Slogans can at best abbreviate the work involved. But they cannot take the place of hard work, planning, sacrifice, harmony and a holistic approach.

Sure, the maxim “cash is king” is catchy. But that cash has to be earned legitimately and be put in the hands of the people.

Top leaders in government seem to believe that with their trademark slogans, their success and invincibility are assured. They seem to think the narrative they set and the hype of that make-believe narrative are enough to carry them through.

These leaders then grow so enamoured and entrapped in their powerful perch in the government’s ecosystem that, at some stage, they begin to believe their own delusion and think they are irreplaceable.

The other mistake these leaders make is to underestimate the opposition and the reach of the state’s law enforcement agencies and judicial apparatus. They also forget that history will judge them.

When criticised, charged or convicted, they realise belatedly they had grossly overestimated their capacity to get away with their corrupt ways.

In Malaysia, a former holder of the country’s most powerful office is now deservedly serving a long prison term, and he now has to come out with the money to pay court-imposed fines.

In his heyday, he never saw the poor conditions of the country’s prisons. Today, he is seeking a home stay after a full and fair trial and after having served only less than a quarter of his prison term. He must have assumed that the law, with its concomitant prison stay, only applies to other people.

The country has set, after a tortuous process, some standard to try and reverse the growing corruption and criminality that has taken hold among some of the ruling elite.

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Najib must serve his time in prison; he must not be given a home stay for the heist he perpetrated on the nation.

The confidence and determination to openly tackle and curb corruption in an orderly way is a new, almost novel thing, in Malaysia.

This confidence has been created rather courageously by Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim, a relatively weak prime minister of an unprecedented “unity government”, within 16 months of being in office. It is a highly fraught route for the PM to take because corruption is well integrated in our system of government.

What’s more, some of Anwar’s allies in his unity government cannot justifiably claim they are untainted.

This association with these not-so-untainted personalities has not only been a challenge but something of a nightmare for the PM. The prime minister has been subject to fiery friendly fire by his own allies in the unity government.

Anwar seems helpless and vulnerable as he seems incapable of muting this friendly fire in an efficient and effective way. The ‘Socksgate’ controversy has shown up his dilemma.

Corruption is not so much an academic subject for PM. It is a reality he has to live with, monitor and manage.

For this reason and the need to rely on the support of a few tainted elected politicians, the PM has been careful not to coin a slogan about zero-tolerance of corruption. This ambiguity has plagued his administration from day one.

But he is trying to combat corruption in every other way. This may sound like a broad and sweeping generalisation, but it has to be accepted.

Honest early leaders

The first generation of our leaders – beginning with Onn Jaafar, Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra, Dr Ismail Abdul Rahman, Abdul Razak Hussein, VT Sambanthan, Dr Lim Chong Eu and Tan Siew Sin – were noted for their high integrity, solid commitment and sacrifice.

In those uncertain uphill times, when our country was a fledgling nation-state, they showed immense foresight, fortitude and courage.

Hussein Onn, in his own modest soldierly way, maintained austerity, humility and modesty.

I once had the opportunity of travelling with him to New York to attend the UN General Assembly.

When we arrived in New York, Hussein was shown to the floor that had been booked for him at the Waldorf Astoria. He enquired from our ambassador, Zain Azraai Zainal Abidin, about the room booked for him and his spouse.

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The flamboyant Zain, rather matter-of-factly informed Hussein that, in keeping with the prevailing practice, heads of such delegations were allotted an entire floor.

Hussein’s quick response was a poser – how could he justify to his people the waste of funds in booking an entire floor for prestige purposes?

In military style, Hussein then convened a ‘council of war’. He sought out details of the rooms available and decided then and there the distribution of rooms on the entire floor. Tengku Ahmad Rithauddeen Ismail, the then foreign minister, was allotted a suite at the tail end of the suite occupied by Hussein.

This was the kind of modesty and sacrifice that the principled leaders of our nation once displayed.

Back then, Malaysia was regarded as a serious and sober country that carefully safeguarded its assets and strove for scholarship and sensitivity to the needs of the people. The nation was respected for the state of its educational, health and socioeconomic facilities.

Recently, the current PM made a difficult decision – that there will not be another financial handout to our civil servants and pensioners for this coming festive season. But he then backtracked and gave handouts to serving and retired civil servants. This showed up his ambiguity in the matter.

But it is commendable that Anwar also took a courageous decision – that Malaysia would decline to host the next Commonwealth Games as it was financially and operationally unfeasible. The PM did well by making this decision to show how serious the country’s financial situation is.

But he needs to go further, much further.

It is about time more credit and recognition is given to our early leaders. These pioneering leaders achieved great success through the Federal Land Development Authority (Felda), the hajj pilgrimage fund board (Tabung Haji) and the armed forces fund board (LTAT). They also ramped up food production and oversaw rubber replanting schemes.

It was their sacrifice, integrity and sterling management that partly enabled the formation of Malaysia.

But some politicians, largely of a later era, became overzealous about these achievements and embarked on reckless talk, irresponsible and ambitious rhetoric, and unrealistic expectations of growth and development.

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Their most serious failing? They did not give enough attention to developing Sabah and Sarawak to match the infrastructure and socioeconomic facilities in the peninsula.

Some recent leaders have gone around the world boasting about the country’s potential when the nation is actually losing competitiveness and seeing greater inequality among its people and within the region.

The country has also lost about RM4-5tn due to pathetic management and oversight of its human, natural and financial resources.

It falls on the current government to do a thorough inventory of what has been lost in quantitative and qualitative terms. It also has to come up with appropriate corrective measures. The country cannot afford to go through a repeat of the last four decades.

We need to carefully relook at our education policy to create a new generation of loyal, well-qualified and well-equipped school leavers.

We cannot isolate ourselves from the regional environment. Look at our neighbouring countries powering ahead by acquiring better English language skills and new professional skill sets that make their graduates widely employable both within and outside their countries. Such skill sets are also a selling point to draw fresh investment in their countries.

There is a seeming hunger to produce AI scientists in the world’s most advanced countries. Malaysia has to develop an ecosystem to build a pool of such AI scientists based on Stem subjects (science, technology, engineering and maths), aptitude, meritocracy and competitiveness.

It is not enough for the prime minister to travel abroad and draw foreign investment. More ground work has to be done at home to attract and maintain a high level of confidence for foreign investments to come in.

We were once among the best in the region in educational, health, scholastic, sports and entertainment achievements. Our football team, badminton stars and P Ramlee movies gave us such a lively and lovely ‘Rasa Sayang’ gloss.

Let’s do our bit to help the government restore the glory the nation once had. We have to transcend the symbolism of sloganeering to achieve solid and substantive progress with greater accountability and unity, good governance, transparency and creativity.

Dato’ M Santhananaban is a retired ambassador with 45 years of public sector experience.

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.

AGENDA RAKYAT - Lima perkara utama
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