It’s the same old story again

By S. Jayasankaran

KUALA LUMPUR, Nov 2 — It’s about time.

Last Friday, Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak announced that a task force would be set up to study the findings of the 2008 Auditor-General’s report and come up with recommendations for action.

The task force is to be helmed by Tan Sri Sidek Hassan, the no-nonsense Chief Secretary to the Government, and will also include the secretary-general of the Finance Ministry, the director-general of the Public Services Department and the Auditor-General himself.

If necessary, Najib added, the task force would include the Attorney-General and the Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission. He said that the Cabinet viewed seriously the “irregularities, abuse of power and mismanagement” revealed in the report.

Unfortunately, the public might have some trouble believing him. We have been hearing this litany of abuse for a long time. Way back in 1982, when Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad first came to power, the then-Auditor-General’s report revealed that packets of Maggi instant noodle packets had been sold to the Armed Forces at ridiculously high prices when its market price then was around 30 sen each. It caused a big splash then but nothing came of it.

It’s deja vu all over again. The latest Auditor-General’s report, among other things, said that a consultant was overpaid by over RM121,000 to help with a RM4.25 million community hall in Kota Belud, Sabah that was completed in 2005 but is now in need of repair and is underutilised.

Then there are the woes of Prasarana, a state agency set up to upgrade public transport in the Klang Valley. The agency was established several years ago by Tan Sri Nor Mohamad Yakcop, then second finance minister, but would seem to be hideously managed.

According to the 2008 Auditor-General’s report, the agency paid a lot for buses which were of poor quality. It bought over-priced land in Cheras, Kuala Lumpur. It suffered almost RM20 million in losses from its equity investment in a loss-making transport firm.

It had “inefficient management and an absence of key performance indicators”. And to top it off, it suffered accumulated losses of RM833 million between 2005 and 2007.

One shudders to think what its losses are now. And this is the company entrusted to carry out one of Malaysia’s largest infrastructure projects — the multibillion ringgit extension and upgrade of Kuala Lumpur’s light rail transit systems.

The whole idea of such reports is to ensure that government agencies tighten management and install safeguards to prevent such abuses from recurring. But In Malaysia, that does not seem to occur, and Parliament is subjected every year to the same litany of hapless financial profligacy.

No action seems to have ever been taken although every year, grim warnings are issued. In the 2006 report, for example, the Auditor-General highlighted a case of a contractor who was overpaid by almost RM20 million in a marine park development in Selangor. Whatever happened to that particular investigation?

The practice of shrugging philosophically is bad for the civil service as it tarnishes all — even the good people — in the eyes of the citizenry. What lingers, what remains is cynicism.

Najib has pledged that action will be taken either in the form of legal proceedings or government disciplinary sanctions. “Otherwise we will see a repeat of the Auditor-General’s report. Year in and year out,” said the prime minister.

Quite. — Business Times Singapore