Of civil and conscientious servants

JANUARY 19 — The early retirement of Malaysian Anti-Corruption Commission’s (MACC) Special Operations Division director Bahri Mohd Zin recently gained much media and public attention particularly because he reportedly gave his frustration with MACC’s investigation of the controversial SRC International Sdn Bhd, which did not end up in court, as the reason for what looks like a principled decision to leave the anti-graft agency. 

Such a career end certainly raised eyebrows in the country as it is not often we get high-ranking government officials – let alone ruling politicians, many of whom are thick-skinned – who’d leave their comfy positions on the basis of principle. If anything, many of them would desperately hang on to these positions for dear life. 

But what’s extraordinary about this case is that public curiosity and concern became especially heightened when MACC subsequently claimed that Bahri had told the Commission that he did not make such a statement. 

This, in turn, caused a furore when the latter insisted that MACC never contacted him ever since his much-publicised retirement and thus he never issued a denial of that nature. 

The Bahri retirement saga also triggered a knee-jerk reaction from the government. Coming hard on the heels of this case, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department Azalina Othman Said warned that stern action will be taken against civil servants, serving as well as retired, who “defame” the government. 

Her warning demands close examination as it has deep implications on human rights, transparency and accountability as well as the conscience and professional ethics of civil servants in general. Besides, it can give rise to serious misunderstanding and confusion. 

It is important for us to bear in mind that not all revelations should necessarily be deemed as actions aimed at smearing the public image of the government or, worse still, acts of mischief and treason. 

There are indeed exposes that are vital and necessary in the fight against administrative mismanagement and corruption and the call for accountability, which incidentally is part and parcel of the rationale behind the call for a Freedom of Information law. 

What constitutes “defamation”? “Defamation”, according to the Cambridge Dictionary, is an act of damaging “the reputation of a person or group by saying or writing bad things about them that are not true.” 

The law of defamation will take its course if and when the maligned party – in this case, the government or its ministers – decides to take legal action against the defaming party if it feels that its political legitimacy, standing and public image have been severely affected or undermined. 

On the other hand, if what is revealed by civil servants concerned about the government is true, such as corruption and mismanagement of state resources that corrode the government machinery and efficiency, then the very act of disclosing information should not be criminalised and whistleblowers in the civil service should not be unduly penalised. 

In fact, whistleblowers should be sufficiently protected by law so that they would not be victimised or left in the cold. In many ways, these individuals can be considered patriots who put their jobs, if not lives, on the line. 

To reiterate, this is why an act of exposing information regarding certain aspects of the government should not be summarily dismissed as something necessarily sinister, especially when it involves incriminating evidence of financial impropriety or embezzlement of state coffers as it has been the case in Malaysia in recent times. 

It is useful to remember at this juncture what American writer-humourist Mark Twain said: “Loyalty to the country always. Loyalty to the government when it deserves it.” 

So such information expose should be interpreted as an act of loyalty to the country, which should prevail over loyalty to the government of the day, especially if and when the political legitimacy of the government becomes suspect owing to, say, financial scandals. 

As long as a democratic government is run by mere mortals who are fallible, there’s always a possibility of political and financial impropriety that may be committed by the ruling politicians, and hence there has to be checks and balances via the principle of separation of powers among the three branches of government, i.e. the executive, legislative and judiciary, as well as whistleblowers and free media. 

For, if whistleblowers were criminalised or accused of being unpatriotic, then, for example, the Watergate scandal, which shook the Nixon administration in the 1970s, would not have been unearthed had the famous informant Deep Throat not stepped out to help halt the rot in the state establishment. 

And President Richard Nixon would not have to resign from his position – because of his political misconduct that was exposed eventually by the press. 

This is, of course, not to say that anything and everything from and about the government, especially official documents that are meant to be secret, should be aired in public. 

That is why there are laws to prevent this, such as the Official Secrets Act (OSA), so that vital documents and data do not fall into the hands of the country’s enemies. In this regard, our OSA needs to be fine-tuned as its definition of “official secrets” is too broad and all-encompassing. Only sensitive information that affects the security of the country should be kept secret. 

Indeed, it is the patriotic duty of particularly conscientious civil servants, both working and retired, to report or reveal any case of graft or political impropriety that occurs in the government administration which in the long run would jeopardise the prosperity, welfare and security of the citizenry and the country as a whole. 

This act of divulging is also one way to halt corruption and leakages from being normalised and deeply entrenched in our beloved society, if it hasn’t already. To keep quiet about it would do a disservice to the entire nation. 

* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.