Dennis Ignatius: Corrupt Leaders Pushing Nation to the Brink

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In many ways we are worse off today than before, certainly more corrupt and morally compromised.

Kudos to Akhbar Satar, the former president of Transparency International Malaysia, for once again calling out our politicians for their corrupt behaviour [Leaders must have intellectual honesty and sincerity.] It is not hard to understand his concerns given that corruption of all kinds is now blatant, persistent and pervasive. Political corruption, in particular, has become especially ruinous.

Indeed, every time we think we’ve seen it all, dishonourable politicians find a way to take unethical behaviour to new heights, find new ways to give expression to their greed and lust for power and profit. In the process, they have tainted our national institutions and made a mockery of our democracy.

A deadly pandemic stalks the land; thousands have lost their jobs; people are experiencing real pain and hardship and our politicians can only think of themselves, their ambitions, their agendas, their perks.

They have rewarded themselves with more cabinet positions than any other government in history. They’ve appointed themselves to more high-paying sinecures in GLCs than any previous administration. They have salaries that most hard-working Malaysians cannot even dream of in addition to duty-free cars and expense accounts. Many of them enjoy lives of unimaginable luxury with holiday homes abroad and garages full of expensive vehicles. Their bank accounts are so bloated that RM2 million is but “loose change” to them. If a law was passed today forbidding anyone with more than RM50 million from holding political office, many seats in parliament would no doubt have to be vacated.

But even all that is not enough to persuade them to put aside their ambitions for once and start serving the people. Their lust for power is pushing the nation closer and closer to the abyss. They are not fighting over ideology or policy, nor for principle or some noble cause; it’s just a mad scramble for power.

Of course, they go on and on about “saving” the nation and “serving” the people and wax eloquent about “bangsa, agama dan negara” but who are they kidding? They are so disconnected from the lives of ordinary Malaysians that they are incapable of hearing the cries of distressed citizens or empathising with their plight. The politicians have become the problem; the question many are asking these days is who will save us from them? If only we could do what Italian voters did recently — sack half the members of parliament and demand greater accountability from the rest of them.

Akhbar was also right to call them out for their stunning hypocrisy, noting wryly that even those who have been convicted of corruption are now giving advice on how to deal with corruption. Another former leader, the progenitor of the culture of corruption that we see around us, a man whose own sons are all multi-millionaires, now brazenly poses as an anti-corruption crusader and makes all kinds of noise about how corrupt his political rivals are. They have no shame, no remorse. Do they not think the people are so gullible that they cannot see through such hypocrisy?

Things have become so bad that the rulers have been compelled to appeal to these quarrelling politicians to think of the people instead of engaging in endless politicking. The Yang di-Pertuan Agong urged them to “self-reflect so that the country will not again be dragged into political uncertainty at a time when we are facing all kinds of problems and a difficult future due to the Covid-19 pandemic.” The Sultan of Selangor made a similar call saying he “was saddened to see many politicians fighting for power” and ignoring the people’s welfare. “People are tired of the politicians’ actions and seemingly endless political crisis,” he added.

But will these same politicians who are quick to falsely accuse the DAP of being disrespectful of the rulers take heed? They know they are despised — former Sabah chief minister Salleh Said Keruak admitted recently that people think politicians are “selfish and self-serving — but their consciences are too seared to care.

Choices have consequences. For decades we nurtured a system that put racial and religious considerations above good governance, accountability and transparency, that excused unethical behaviour for the sake of political expediency. We even provided religious cover for corrupt leaders by promoting the idea that people of a certain faith should continue to vote for corrupt politicians of the same faith rather than support honest men of other faiths. And now the chickens have come home to roost in the form of these unscrupulous, self-serving, corrupt, and power-hungry leaders.

Power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely (Lord Acton). After decades of near-absolute power, our political classes are absolutely and irredeemably corrupt. In many ways we are worse off today than before, certainly more corrupt and morally compromised. We have high buildings but low morals, loads of religion but little integrity, plenty of committees to tackle graft but the most corruption we’ve ever seen.

In his opinion piece, Akhbar noted that “behind every successful nation there are great leaders with intellectual honesty and sincerity… Leaders who pursue the truth, keeping their word, making decisions based on fact and formulating policies for the benefit of their electorate… always [thinking] of their country first…placing their personal needs above others.”

What does it say of our nation that in our hour of greatest need, no such leaders are to be found?