The former assistant auditor general of Malaysia, Kanason Pothinker, passed away on 9 June, with hardly any public notice.
It was a strange feeling for me: I had got so used to hearing about his concerns that the final silence left a sense of unfinished business.
Who was Kanason? In a career spanning 33 years from 1959 to 1992, he was directly responsible to the then auditor general for the planning, audit and reporting on all statutory bodies, both at federal and state levels.
In 2005-2006 during the Abdullah Badawi administration, Kanason headed a team to review financial management policies and procedures in the public sector.
This concern for reforms to public sector financial management haunted him to the end.
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In recent times, Kanason’s main contention was that there was no need to think too hard to come up with stronger internal control and reporting standards. “No need for expensive consultants,” he would say over the phone. “No need to reinvent the wheel.”
The government could just adopt standards and best practices from countries with sound public sector financial management and exemplary reporting standards, he said. “I strongly believe the Australian act of 2013 on governance/accountability is the way forward. Our Financial Procedure Act of 1957 has not been updated to bring in governance aspects,” he wrote in an email.
“While our corporate sector has kept pace with developments and improvements in the ‘market’ and had brought in changes in governance issues – the public government sector still operated or managed with procedures and practices of the 1950s.”
Kanason emailed members of Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s economic advisory committee on these and other pertinent issues related to good governance. They should look up the material he sent them and seriously consider implementing his suggestions.
Some of his recommendations can be found in the articles – “How to reduce public sector fraud” and “Sign on the dotted line: Senior public sector officials must take full responsibility” – he sent to Aliran.
So concerned was he about the need for reforms that on 20 February, at the age of 84, he sent in his application form to become a member of social reform group Aliran.
This was duly accepted by the Aliran executive committee – we were honoured to have him in our ranks, even though, as it turned out, it was only for a brief moment in time.
Kanason’s final clarion call, published in Aliran on 14 March, was directed at the Anwar administration and the nation. His piece “Where is our auditor general?” sounded the alarm that the nation did not have an auditor general in office, after the previous incumbent, Nik Azman Nik Abdul Majid, ended his term. Nik Azman had served two two-year terms as auditor general, vacating office on 23 February.
“The delay in the appointment of a new auditor general does not reflect well on the government, more so on the PM,” Kanason observed, adding that the nation would not have good governance in the public sector if the position was left vacant.
“The auditor general is the topmost authority charged with forming ‘an opinion as to whether a department of government … a ministry or an authority has used its resources with economy, efficiency and effectiveness’.”
In the past two years, the auditor general has continually reported on compliance failures that have resulted in losses, abuses, waste and ineffective use of government resources, he wrote.
Kanason also felt that the two-year term for the auditor general was too short: it should be for “fixed periods of five, six or even 10 years, as in other Commonwealth countries”.
As the weeks rolled by with no new auditor general in sight, Kanason grew increasingly frantic and restless, judging from his phone calls, text messages and emails to Aliran. How could the nation go on without an auditor general in office?
Despite his failing health – he was suffering from kidney failure – he tried desperately to meet those in the corridors of power to put forward his recommendations. “He was trying to arrange meetings until the end,” his daughter Prema said.
On 15 April he texted me a news report that a candidate for auditor general had been sent to the King.
In the afternoon of 9 June, Kanason passed away, largely unnoticed.
Three days later the government finally announced the appointment of a new auditor general with effect from 13 June – almost four months after the post had fallen vacant. The new auditor general, Wan Suraya Wan Mohd Radzi, has served 29 years in the civil service, her last post reportedly as CEO of the Malaysian Institute of Integrity.
Kanason can now rest in peace.
The Anwar administration could really honour Kanason by quickly implementing the former assistant auditor general’s recommendations to strengthen public sector financial management.
Kanason had prepared a 58-page report filled with a litany of reforms he hoped to see implemented. No doubt, these reforms would help plug many of the ‘leakages’ that have cost the nation hundreds of billions of ringgit over the years.
That would be a fitting tribute to Kanason, whose concerns were borne out of his love for the country and for future generations. He once concluded an article, saying, “It took me two days … to draft this article with the help of my granddaughter. I told her I was writing this piece, with the hope that her future in this wonderful country of ours would be even better.”
Rest in peace, dear Kanason. You did your part, and for that, we will be forever grateful.