By Tunku ‘Abidin Muhriz

I’ve been spending some time in Singapore lately, and on numerous occasions after a long dinner – when it’s raining, and when the bus stops are too far or too full – I’ve proceeded circuitously to a taxi rank. Initially I thought there weren’t enough taxis on the island, because I have taken taxis in many developed cities on the planet but queues for taxis in Singapore are on average (a) longer than any other and (b) progress very slowly.

The prohibition on embarking anywhere forces people to congregate at the approved locations (it is illegal for taxis to stop along the major thoroughfares), but the second trend, I have just concluded, is largely due to widespread practice of booking of taxis while in the queue. The practice is to arrive at the taxi stand and, if the queue doesn’t slither quickly enough, to reach for one’s mobile. The effect is that nearly every subsequent vehicle is ‘on call’ and people embark them from different points of the queue, while those at the front, who have waited twenty minutes to avoid the additional three dollars’ booking fee, get increasingly flustered.

Having also just read of the disqualification of the Chief Minister of Malacca from the contest for the deputy presidency of Umno for vote-buying carried out by his agents, I was reminded of the concept known as “speed money”. In the study of corruption this is the phenomenon where things get done more quickly (or at all) upon payment to an authority or series of authorities. There is a school of thought which argues that if corruption is going to occur, better it be centralised than decentralised. In the USSR, bribes were monitored by the Communist Party but following its collapse, little Napoleons free from central authority (but retaining monopolies over certain functions) were able to set their own rates, which led to gross inefficiency. Similar arguments have been made for pre- and post-Suharto Indonesia.

The trick therefore is to ensure that when powers are delegated to other bodies because of decentralisation or other reforms, the opportunities for rent seeking (i.e. extortion) are minimised. Several ingredients – ethics, transparency, legal force – are involved, without which the new regime will be condemned as being worse than the one it replaced. Recently the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission was criticised over the handling of a case, and now the actions of the Umno Disciplinary Board are also being questioned in the blogosphere. Of course many critics too will have political interests. Like in post-Soviet Russia and post-Suharto Indonesia, it will inevitably take time for new institutions to fully develop, adjust and be trusted by the people in times of change.

In May 2007 my employer at the time sent me on a month-long mission to Ulaanbaatar. Malaysia was then prominently in the front pages of the Mongolian dailies, and the immigration officer spent a good ten minutes reading my passport (it might have been quicker to use my alternative travel document issued to staff who need to travel to countries their passports won’t allow). I was working on reform of the civil service there – the problem was that many civil servants were avid members of political parties who were shunned by (or refused to work with) the government when the other side won, which was often. So huge numbers of people were being paid to work for the state even though their first loyalty was to their political party. It made me appreciate the British model we adopted where civil servants are trained to work with the government of the day regardless of which party supplies it.

Still, political parties everywhere are always prone to corruption. In the USA the exchange of large sums of money is legitimised or hidden within the complex machinery of lobbying, and in the UK scandals like the “cash for peerages” fiasco (a bit like the alleged sale of Datukships but involving probably more money and arguably cooler titles) have emerged where donors to the Labour Party suddenly end up in the House of Lords.

That is why it is essential that not only the original party of freedom, of our Merdeka – but all Malaysian political parties – democratise themselves, subjugate themselves to the grassroots, and decentralise decision-making while ensuring any new bodies are subject to the same legal force that they are. If the parties don’t abide by the rule of law then there is little hope that they will promote it in government.

When the practice of extra payments for benefits is openly legitimised and made transparent – like the circumvention of Singaporean taxi queues – we can have an honest debate about it. But when the governance of our nation is kept under the lid, rumours and innuendo dominate, and we all suffer.

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Tunku ’Abidin Muhriz is Director of the Malaysia Think Tank.

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