Dennis Ignatius: Nurul Izzah’s appointment – do principles matter?

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Principles of good governance must be upheld without exception.

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Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim’s recent appointment of his eldest daughter – Nurul Izzah – as senior economic and financial adviser took many by surprise. According to media reports, the appointment, which is on a pro bono basis, puts Nurul Izzah in charge of overseeing all government contracts. Anwar has justified the appointment on the grounds that she is well qualified for the task.

Those who support the appointment argue that Nurul Izzah is an experienced and able politician, that she is a person of integrity and is very committed to the reform agenda. Besides, it’s a pro bono appointment, so what’s the big deal?

Her supporters have also turned on those who have expressed concern about the appointment with a viciousness that doesn’t speak well of our collective ability to disagree without getting personal.

Nurul’s appointment, whether pro bono or not, is troubling for several reasons. Good governance requires elected and other officials to separate family and family interests from the governance process. It is not a matter of salary or qualification but principle. Nepotism is not just about high-paying jobs but about putting family and friends in positions of influence, patronage and power.

Bringing in a family member – in this case, the daughter of the Prime Minister no less – also creates all sort of challenges for those who will now have to work with her. Her power derives not from her position as “adviser” but from the fact that she is the Prime Minister’s daughter with a direct line to the Prime Minister himself.

When she speaks or acts, the bureaucracy will have to assume that she is acting on behalf of her father, the Prime Minister. It gives her asymmetrical control over the bureaucracy and all the processes of government.

The Prime Minister says his daughter will be tasked with ensuring that contracts and tenders are managed in an “orderly” manner. That will give her enormous power over billions upon billions of ringgit worth of contracts, making her the administration’s go-to person on all big projects. It invests too much authority in a single person and further concentrates power in the hands of a few.

As well, it short-circuits the whole system that has been put in place to manage contracts and tenders. To be sure, the government’s procurement system is deeply flawed and suspect. Indeed, Nurul’s appointment is an indication that the Prime Minister does not have too much confidence in the Finance and Economy ministries as well as the bureaucracy at large.

But, if that is the case, wouldn’t it be better to thoroughly reform the system instead of simply appointing a new overseer? Aren’t such reforms an integral part of the reformasi agenda that the Prime Minister promised to deliver?

And where does it end? If Nurul’s appointment is acceptable on the grounds that she is capable and has a good track record, will it then be okay for other politicians to appoint their family members and cronies as advisers if they too are deemed capable and good?

It is not an academic question; reports abound that the Dewan Rakyat Speaker has appointed his son as “special tasks officer”. Though he has denied it, questions remain. Are there other appointments that we don’t know of as yet?

It is axiomatic that power corrupts. If we want to truly rid ourselves of corruption and the abuse of power, we must put in place a transparent process and the right institutional safeguards instead of depending on individuals no matter how good or qualified they are. Good men and women are undoubtedly of critical importance but our best hope for the future are strong and credible institutions rather than strong personalities; strong checks and balances rather than strong personal connections.

For too long our nation has been plagued by corruption, nepotism and the abuse of power. We all have high hopes that Anwar will do what no prime minister has been able to do in decades – clean up the system and leave behind a legacy of institutional integrity and good governance. Appointing his daughter as senior economic and financial adviser sends the wrong message and is a step backwards.

We all want Anwar to succeed; he is our best – some would say last – hope for building that better Malaysia we all yearn for. The best way to ensure success, however, is not by giving Anwar a free hand or excusing poor governance practices but by demanding of him and his administration accountability, transparency and the highest standards of governance. Principles of good governance, if they are worth anything at all, must be upheld without exception. – Dennis Ignatius